State of the Hogs: Tulsa

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When in doubt, pick up the phone and call someone you trust. That hit me about 9 p.m. Wednesday night as Brad Lidge closed the World Series for Philadelphia. Pat Jones answered on the first ring.

Yep, the former Oklahoma State coach, an Arkansas native and grad, would provide a scouting report on Tulsa football. There were just as many questions from his end on Arkansas. He was doing a little show prep for his daily radio shows in the Tulsa and Oklahoma City markets.

Between the two of us, we've seen every Arkansas-Tulsa game for the last 50 years. And, we've seen plenty of other Tulsa games. I covered Tulsa for 14 years as part of my college football duties at the Tulsa World. Jones saw plenty of TU game film during his time as OSU coach as his staff prepped to play the Golden Hurricane.

Lately, he's seen a handful of Tulsa practices. He makes an annual spring tour to watch Tulsa, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma practices. As a starter, Jones said simply, "This is the biggest game Tulsa has ever played, an incredibly big game. Never has there been more on the line in a football game for Tulsa."

Then, he added the clincher. He said this is not the best Tulsa team he's seen. Yes, it can move the ball. Yes, it's fun to watch.

But this is not a team equipped with the kind of players he saw at Tulsa in either the 1970s when the likes of Drew Pearson, Ralph McGill and Ray Rhodes were tearing up the Missouri Valley (and Arkansas). And, the Golden Hurricane does not have a running back like Ken Lacey or Michael Gunter.

And, there are no defenders like Lovie Smith, Don Blackmon, Barry Minter or Dennis Byrd.

"They don't have anyone in the front seven like those guys, but do they ever play hard," Jones said. "The interesting thing about this team is that they can score so many points that teams can't really play against that defense the way they should. They don't try to hammer away because they are behind.

"What happens, you get behind and start trying to play uphill. Then, they blitz the heck out of you and they can flat do that. If you just stay patient and run the ball, you can do that on them. No one has been able to slow them down enough on offense to be able to stick to that."

There isn't a Michael Gunter in the offensive bunch, either. But there is a collection of skill position players that rivals the group that ambushed No. 7 Arkansas, 21-20, in 1971. The Hogs led that one 20-0 going into the fourth quarter, but collapsed when Jon Richardson, playing with a broken leg, began to fumble.

The Hurricane hit three TD passes in the final quarter. The last drive overcame three or four holding penalties and covered about 115 yards after all of the step-offs by the SWC officials.

"I give Steve Kragthorpe credit for changing their offensive personnel about three years ago," Jones said. "I made my annual trip out there in spring practice and they didn't have a single receiver, not one. He went to the juco ranks, signed a couple and that got them started.

"Now, they've got a pretty nice set of skill players. They've accumulated a nice group. Starting with Kragthorpe and then to continue it with Todd Graham, they've really done a nice job of increasing their speed and quickness. They've got some that are a little small like AJ Whitmore, but they can really move in space. They aren't real big, but boy do they have a lot of weapons. They can operate in space and cause some real problems."

Jones really likes TU quarterback David Johnson. "I recall going out there two springs ago to look for Paul Smith, their quarterback then," Jones said. "We'd coached Paul's daddy at Oklahoma State. So I was interested to see Paul. I didn't have a roster. I got down to the quarterbacks and studied them. I was liking what I saw in his arm. Big-time arm and great touch on the deep pass. Then, someone gave me their names. I'd been watching Johnson, thinking it was Paul. That's when I realized what kind of talent he had.

"I'm not surprised by what Johnson has done. I've visited with him some. He's an outstanding leader. He's got that ability you want in a quarterback that is going to make you a winner. He's the kind of person, when he's done with football, is going to have the corner office running the company, or you will be voting for him. He's that kind of person."

Then, there's the West Virginia flavor in the offense that gives the Hurricane a nice twist to the Gus Malzahn stuff that everyone in Northwest Arkansas knows and loves.

"They can do all that stuff with Gus that makes them tough to stop, then they get in the West Virginia stuff that Graham and his line coach brought, and they can really run it," Jones said. "That might surprise some folks back there (in Arkansas), but they have a physical nasty style that is pure West Virginia.

"I think deep down, Graham really wants to just run it. It's very West Virginia. That's what they like to do with Whitmore. That kid is really good. He can throw it. I watched him in the quarterback drills. He throws better than you think. He's got a nice, quick arm and he can change the tone when he gets in there at quarterback."

Jones likes fullback Charles Clay, too. He introduced himself last spring.

"I just told him, ‘I coached your daddy,'" Jones said. "I started talking to him about Parkview, then found out he was a Central guy, so I had that wrong.

"He's 6-3, 225 -- just like his daddy -- and he'd fit on any roster anywhere in the country. He's beat up right now and he's really not a true fullback. He's about like his daddy, kinda a halfway tight end, halfway wide receiver and that's how they use him, move him around in those spots. He's got great hands and he plays hard." Jones won't see the game. His weekend duties for the TV show he does with Barry Switzer puts him in Oklahoma City on Saturdays.

"I'm really disappointed I can't get to this game," he said. "It should be a really fun game. I'm not sure who is going to win. This may be the first time in history that Tulsa is favored in this series. It should be really interesting. "It' gotten quite the buildup over here (in Tulsa). People are excited. Like I said, very, very interesting. I know Tulsa is really jacked up for this one."

The question from Jones near the end of the visit: Would Arkansas be as hyped? We agreed, probably not.

If there is motivation, it's to spoil the season of one of the nation's have nots, protect the reputation of the BCS conferences. In theory, Arkansas still has bowl hopes. There is also the matter of playing for the Arkansas seniors in their final appearance in the Ozarks.

That doesn't sound like a whole lot when you consider a couple of old guys think this is Tulsa's biggest game ever.

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