clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Philip Montgomery needs the perpetual Tulsa roller coaster to go up now

New, comments

His job might depend on it.

Tulsa v Houston
Philip Montgomery
Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

Philip Montgomery presumably didn’t forget how to coach somewhere between January and August of 2017. His brilliant offensive pedigree, honed first in the Texas high school ranks and then over a decade of working with Art Briles, didn’t suddenly expire. He didn’t suddenly sign nothing but two-star players and walk-ons.

And yet, here we are.

We’ve learned two things through the years:

  1. You can win at Tulsa.
  2. You can’t win for too long.

Coaching is zero-sum. A vast majority of FBS head coaches probably have a plan and good coaching instincts, but college football is a constant roller coaster of talent replacement and random injuries and funky bounces, and this year’s great coach could be next year’s hot-seater. Tulsa is often proof.

Since the mid-1960s, Golden Hurricane coaches have caught success and then released it like a catfish in Lake Eufala.

  • Glenn Dobbs went 17-5 in 1964-65, then 16-14 the next three years.
  • John Cooper parlayed an 18-4 run in 1982-83 into the Arizona State job, but not before he sank to 6-5 in 1984.
  • David Rader won 10 games in 1991, then averaged 3.4 a year for the next eight seasons.
  • Steve Kragthorpe had three eight- or nine-win seasons, with a 4-8 sandwiched in the middle.
  • Todd Graham had three double-digit win seasons, with a 5-7 sandwiched in the middle.
  • Bill Blankenship: 11 wins in 2012, five combined in 2013-14.
  • Montgomery: 10 wins in 2016, five combined in 2017-18.

Even by Tulsa standards, things have become extreme. Montgomery’s 2016 team was, per a No. 50 S&P+ ranking, the Golden Hurricane’s best since Graham’s 2008 squad ranked 42nd. A year later, Tulsa was 2-10 and back into the triple digits. He solved a few defensive issues in 2018, but his offense was a cavalcade of quarterback injuries. Tulsa went 3-9 and ranked 107th.

While following Blankenship’s trajectory to the letter, Montgomery is attempting to pull off something Blankenship couldn’t: saving his job.

He’ll at least now have help from an experienced two-deep.

His 2017 team bounced between a sophomore quarterback (Chad President) and a freshman (Luke Skipper) and relied on a few too many sophomores defensively. His 2018 team again bounced between a sophomore (Skipper) and a freshman (Seth Boomer) behind center, not to mention sophomores at running back and a couple of key freshman defenders.

Theoretically, he’s got what he needs now. This spring’s QB battle is a three-way fight between Skipper, Boomer, and Baylor transfer Zach Smith. He’s got an experienced skill corps and a vastly experienced defense. Granted, the offensive line needs sprucing up, but compared to the challenges of the last couple of seasons, that feels manageable.

It’s really hard to come back after a two-year collapse. Not only do you have to reestablish a culture and get back to a level of quality, but all those other coaches also still know what they’re doing. You have to catch back up to yourself, then also catch up with them. The odds are stacked against Montgomery, but we don’t know that he can’t establish a top-50 level again until he doesn’t.

Offense

It’s amazing what having a trustworthy quarterback can do. Back in 2016, Tulsa was paced by Dane Evans, a Chickasha native who finished his career with nearly 12,000 passing yards. Tulsa leaned into the run a bit more his senior season thanks to the reliable D’Angelo Brewer and James Flanders, who combined for over 40 carries per game and nearly six yards per carry, but when the Golden Hurricane fell behind schedule, Evans was able to catch them back up.

That’s become an issue.

  • 2015: 78 passes on third-and-7 or more, 32 first-down completions (41.0 percent)
  • 2016: 68 third-and-long passes, 28 first downs (41.2 percent)
  • 2017: 50 third-and-long passes, 14 first downs (28.0 percent)
  • 2018: 61 third-and-long passes, 17 first downs (27.9 percent)

The combination of injuries and inexperience is a crippler. Chad President, a former star recruit, could never stay healthy and retired from the sport after a leg injury ended his season. After playing most of the second half of 2017, Luke Skipper started the first four games before succumbing to a back injury. So for the second straight season, a freshman took most of the snaps.

At the least, Seth Boomer replicated what Skipper had been producing. He was a little less efficient but more vertical in his passing, averaging 13.6 yards per completion to Skipper’s 10.5 and, with an interception rate less than half of Skipper’s, committing far fewer outright errors. His first four games were brutal (passer rating: 93.6), but he settled in (last four games: 149.5).

Skipper’s performance was encouraging, all things considered, but he’s got pretty stiff competition this spring, namely from Zach Smith.

Baylor v TCU
Zach Smith
Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Smith knows plenty about being thrown into the deep end. At Baylor in 2016, he ended up starting for the last month of his freshman season and completed 62 percent of his passes in his starts. He also knows something about getting hurt and replaced by a younger starter. He was the Bears’ first-stringer for half of 2017, but injured his shoulder and got one-upped by Charlie Brewer.

Skipper’s status is up in the air, but between Boomer and Smith, you figure a sturdy quarterback should emerge. (And with Tulsa’s and Smith’s recent injury history, you figure having both on hand, or all three, isn’t a bad idea.)

Tulsa v Houston
Corey Taylor II
Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

Montgomery has proved he doesn’t mind leaning on the run, but over the last couple of years, it’s felt like he was doing so as much out of necessity as choice. When Boomer began hitting his passes late in the year, some running lanes opened up, and Corey Taylor II and Shamari Brooks raised their per-carry averages from 4.3 to 4.8.

The passing game might be good enough that we actually get to see what his preferences are this year. Tulsa does lose leading target Justin Hobbs, but inside receivers Keylon Stokes and Jarion Anderson (combined: 69 catches, 863 yards) were pretty efficient options, and wideout Keenen Anderson produced nearly as many receiving yards in 62 targets as Hobbs did in 80.

This trio gives Tulsa a decent veteran core, and we’ll see if young recent star recruits like Sam Crawford Jr., redshirt freshmen Marquez Perez and Imiee Cooksey, or incoming freshman Korey King can bring a little bit more upside.

The one thing that should shake up Tulsa’s improvement is the line. Granted, pass protection was an issue (which was probably as much on the young QBs as their pass protectors), but Tulsa ranked a decent 51st in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line) and now has to replace three starters.

Still, four players with starting experience return, and Tulsa got a head start on replacing its best lineman when all-conference guard Tyler Bowling missed half the season.

Defense

After 50 years, Bill Young’s career finally ends. The former Ohio State, Oklahoma, USC, Kansas, Miami, and Oklahoma State defensive coordinator coached at all three major levels of the sport and wrapped up a storied run with four years at TU. And after producing a hell of a 2016 defense (57th in Def. S&P+) and watching it all fall apart in 2017 (117th), he generated some improvement on the way out.

Tulsa rebounded to 96th last fall, which wasn’t bad considering he had only one senior among his top 12 tacklers. The Hurricane struggled against the run and failed to generate any sort of disruption (which was a theme for Young at times through the years), but they reined in opposing passing games, and that’s typically enough to make some stops in the non-Navy portion of the AAC.

Tulsa v Temple
Akayleb Evans (26), Trevis Gipson (15), and Zaven Collins (23)
Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Montgomery promoted linebackers coach Joseph Gillespie to the DC job. He and Young transitioned Tulsa from a 4-2-5 alignment to a 3-3-5 last fall, and evidently the transition went well enough to earn Gillespie the new assignment.

Linebacker was certainly a Tulsa strength, and last year’s first and second string return intact. Senior Cooper Edmiston is the quarterback figure, but sophomore weakside LB Zaven Collins is a potential star. These two combined for 17 tackles for loss, 22 run stuffs, and nine passes defensed.

The secondary has to replace maybe its best safety in McKinley Whitfield, but the cornerback unit is exciting. Juniors-to-be Allie Green IV and Akayleb Evans are back, as are a veteran in Reggie Robinson II and an exciting youngster in Jabari James, who held his own in a three-game redshirt audition. Tulsa needs far more production from the nickel back production — it is a source of disruption in many defenses, but Bryson Powers and TieNeal Martin combined for zero TFLs and only four pass breakups — but with these CBs and free safety Manny Bunch, I would be the unit still improves in Powers’ absence.

Tulsa v Houston
Manny Bunch (10)
Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

Up front, it’s whole vs. sum of parts. End Trevis Gipson was Tulsa’s lone pass rusher last year and was exciting — he had four sacks, nine total TFLs, and five forced fumbles — and hulking nose guard Tyarise Stevenson produces a bit and looks the part. Still, the run defense lacked even with these two. Finding a couple more disruptive pieces, either at DE, linebacker, or in the nickel, would help dramatically.

Special Teams

Something else that would help: a special teams rebound. Tulsa ranked 50th in Special Teams S&P+ in Montgomery’s first two seasons, slipped to 76th in 2017, then nosedived (nosedove?) to 113th last year.

The primary culprit: place-kicking. Nate Walker and John Parker Romo split the duties, and neither thrived, going a combined 1-for-6 on field goals over 40 yards. Romo’s back, for whatever that’s worth.

The rest of the unit is pretty exciting. Keyion Stokes is strong in kickoff returns, and Jarion Anderson averaged 12.6 yards per punt return and ranked 12th in PR efficiency. Thomas Bennett out-kicked his punt coverage semi-frequently but averaged a booming 46.6 yards per kick. That’s fun, at least.

2019 outlook

2019 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
30-Aug at Michigan State 23 -21.1 11%
7-Sep at San Jose State 117 7.7 67%
14-Sep Oklahoma State 22 -16.2 17%
21-Sep Wyoming 92 1.2 53%
5-Oct at SMU 85 -6.2 36%
12-Oct Navy 118 12.8 77%
19-Oct at Cincinnati 44 -15.6 18%
26-Oct Memphis 26 -15.7 18%
2-Nov at Tulane 98 -1.3 47%
8-Nov UCF 27 -15.2 19%
23-Nov Houston 73 -3.8 41%
30-Nov at East Carolina 113 5.9 63%
Projected S&P+ Rk 95
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 103 / 80
Projected wins 4.7
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -7.8 (96)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 98
2018 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -4 / -4.4
2018 TO Luck/Game +0.2
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 75% (71%, 79%)
2018 Second-order wins (difference) 4.4 (-1.4)

Pulling off a rebound this significant is hard. As much upside as Tulsa showed a couple of seasons ago, the Golden Hurricane have shown even more downside of late.

Still, the quarterback position appears more stable than it has in a while (until or unless another year of the injury bug changes that), and the skill corps has an interesting mix of veterans and, in the receiving corps, high-upside youngsters. Defensively, the rebound seems to have enough on-field continuity.

The schedule’s pretty unforgiving, though. Non-conference games against Michigan State and Oklahoma State, combined with an inter-division visit from UCF, means that despite being projected to improve to 95th in S&P+, the Hurricane are two-touchdown underdogs (at least) in five games. They’re favored in four, and three more games are within reach (at SMU, at Tulane, Houston at home), but with five nearly sure losses, they’ll have to basically win every winnable game to get back to a bowl.

Is it possible? Certainly. But it’s hard to predict it.

Montgomery’s team should improve. Maybe it’ll be enough for him to save his job and, with as few as three senior starters on offense, thrive with a veteran attack in 2020. But he’s got quite a bit to prove in 2019 first.

Team preview stats

All 2019 preview data to date.