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Even though his first season at Tulsa resulted in the program's first bowl bid in 12 years, Steve Kragthorpe knew that his rebuilding effort was going to be a marathon, not a sprint. That is why the Golden Hurricane's third-year coach is able to shrug off last season's 4-8 record as a minor bump in the road on the way to future success.
"I think we've made a significant amount of progress the last two seasons," said Kragthorpe, a former Buffalo Bills assistant. "Our record (last season) didn't reflect that as much as it did in 2003 (8-5), and yet, at various points in time I thought that we played better football. We just didn't see the fruit of our labor in terms of the win column."
The '05 campaign might produce similar results considering that several key starters must be replaced on both sides of the ball. However, the excitement of joining Conference USA should at least provide renewed enthusiasm.
"It's great for us programmatically, to move into Conference USA and the prestige that comes along with that," said Kragthorpe, noting the league's national television contract and five bowl tie-ins. "And then, the biggest thing for us is just geographics. It's much easier for our players' families and our fans to get to see us play."
Tulsa's two-headed monster -- running backs Uril Parrish and Brandon Diles -- will undoubtedly be the focal point of the offense, especially early in the season when Kragthorpe tries to ease a new starting quarterback into his system.
Conventional wisdom suggests that redshirt sophomore Paul Smith will beat out redshirt freshman David Johnson in fall camp, based on experience. Smith played in eight games in '03, leading the Golden Hurricane to a bowl-clinching win over San Jose State in the season finale. But Johnson enjoyed a strong spring and will be given an opportunity to win the job.
The receiving corps seeks a true deep threat to complement All-America tight end Garrett Mills and the dangerous Ashlan Davis. Davis is the top returning wideout, although he caught most his passes on short routes last season. Look for transfers Idris Moss and Ryan Bugg to help stretch the field.
Aaron Danenhauer anchors an offensive line that returns four players with starting experience. He will move to center in an effort to replace all-conference performer Derek Warehime.
Tulsa must improve against the run and make more big plays. Last season, the Golden Hurricane allowed 210.6 yards per game on the ground, forced just 16 turnovers, and recorded only 13 sacks.
Defensive coordinator Todd Graham's 3-3-5 alignment has its share of stars to build around, as it features a solid lineman in senior end Brandon Lohr, a Lombardi Award candidate in junior linebacker Nick Bunting, and a steady playmaker in bandit Bobby Blackshire.
The addition of junior college linebackers Steve Craver, Alain Karatepeyan and Martelle Narcisse, as well as the return of defensive back Kedrick Alexander from a season-long suspension, should give the Golden Hurricane a boost.
Nearly every specialist is back, including kickoff return star Davis, placekicker Brad DeVault, punter Chris Kindred and deep snapper Morgan Guidry.
Davis was simply remarkable returning kicks last season, setting a pair of NCAA records -- five kickoff returns for touchdowns and four consecutive games returning a kickoff for a touchdown.
One area that needs to improve is protection; Tulsa had eight kicks (three field goal attempts and five punts) blocked last season.
While the familiarity of fellow WAC transplants Rice, SMU and UTEP will ease the transition to Conference USA, Tulsa's first season in the new-look league will not be without its share of challenges.
The Golden Hurricane will have to break in a new quarterback, solidify an injury-plagued offensive line, find a deep threat at receiver and shore up a defense that ranked near the bottom of I-A in rushing yards allowed. That won't be an easy task, especially against a schedule that features six bowl teams from a year ago, including four straight to begin the season. And each of those four squads -- Minnesota, Oklahoma, North Texas and Memphis -- returns a player who ranked among the top 20 nationally in rushing.
However, Kragthorpe has proved before that games aren't played on paper, and a winning season is not out of the question if Tulsa can find a way to win the close ones.