Tulsa, one of college football’s prized G5s, eyeing fresh start under new management
By Bryce McKinnis
Following its 5-7 campaign in 2022, the University of Tulsa excused head coach Philip Montgomery after eight years leading the program and traded in for Ohio State offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson, a college coaching veteran whose dry wit and candor have notes of Mike Leach.
Wilson, a former Broyles Award winner with whom locals might identify for his 2002-10 stint as an offensive guru at Oklahoma, plans to tackle the task of replacing 15 starters by committee. TU brings back over 20 returning letter-winners on each side of the ball.
Since taking the gig in December, Wilson has refused to heed the NCAA’s 18-month allowance to not renew scholarship players, a rule which allows new coaches to flip the existing 85-man roster on its head; he has not yet sent a player packing, and with one semester of the Wilson era under its belt, the team has had a better-than-anticipated start by his metrics.
“We’re evolving. There’s been really good buy-in. We didn’t come in with a lot of transfer guys. We didn’t come in and kick a lot of people out,” Wilson said. “We haven’t done that, which a lot of people have.”
That said, has not yet identified the “anointed ones” at several key positions.
“We’ve got no set positions, because even though you guys think guys are starting,” Wilson said, gesturing to a handful of media members and TU sports information personnel in his office, “it’s like. . . who shows up every day, and who can you count on? . . We like to say starters. These are 15, 16, 18, 20 on both sides of the ball you’re counting on. You want to be technically two-deep, but you’re never going to be. You’re looking for an extra tackle. You’re looking for your second running back and maybe even a third, just ‘cause of wear and tear. You know, you’re playing five or six receivers. You’re playing two or three tight ends.”
There are no question marks on the quarterback depth chart as far as Wilson is concerned; Braylon Braxton (6-3, 222, So.), who started three games in place of the injured Davis Brin last year, has earned the full-time role, but quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator Steve Spurrier Jr. is keeping the stable trained.
Braxton, who threw 10 touchdowns and rushed 5, may be the team’s best rushing threat.
“Braxton is a really good athlete and buying in and throwing a little bit better, more on-target,” Wilson said.
Cardell Williams (6-2, 175, Fr.) and Roman Fuller (6-4, 206, Jr.) are listed as No. 2 and No. 3, respectively. Wilson called the quarterbacks room the best skill position group on the team.
“I think everybody’s intrigued and thinks that [Braxton] will be a really good young player, but last year, the starting quarterback was injured while this quarterback played, so you need more than one,” Wilson said. “[Williams] has got a chance to be really good, too. . . Roman’s a good pocket quarterback, probably a little bit like [Brin].”
Up front, Wilson and O-Line coach Ryan Stanchek are looking for eight quality players with versatility.
“There can be a lot of flexibility. A guard can play tackle. A guy on the right side can be left-side,” Wilson said.
Right tackle Bryce Bray (6-4, 305, Sr.) has so far been the unit’s offseason warrior and is expected to start.
“Right now, [Bray] is having the best workout of any lineman out there on that field,” Wilson said.
At right guard, both Jeremy Jones (6-5, 305, Sr.) and Chester Baah (6-3, 308, Sr.) have been impressive, but walk-on Walter Young Bear (6-3, 299, So.) has given both a run for their money.
“[Young Bear] will be one of our top seven, eight guys. He’s had a great offseason,” Wilson said. “I like his toughness. . . Of the guys we’ve said are backups, right now, he’s the best one.”
Kai-Leon Herbert (6-4, 305, Gr.), Tai Marks (6-2, 300, Jr.) and Will Farniok (6-2, 305, Jr.) have each had great springs and are slated to start at left tackle, left guard and center, respectively. Marks and Farniok started all or most of the season last year while Herbert started one game. Others like Darrell Simpson (6-8, 348, Gr.) will see playing time this fall.
Wilson – not one to give undue credit – said he likes the tight end group, which he said will lend TU’s offense some versatility.
“I think you might see some more-than-one tight end-sets as we go through it,” Wilson said. “I would say that position blocked as good or better than the offensive line in our spring drills.”
Returning starter Ethan Hall (6-3, 240, Sr.) leads the group. He and Bayne Tryon (6-2, 232, Jr.) are likely the best receiving threats of the group, while Colby Powers (6-4, 231, So.), Connor Vaughn (6-5, 248, Fr.) and Luke McGary (6-3, 225, Fr.) are more capable blockers.
The running back battle might be the most intriguing of the offensive positions. A four-way race between Jordan Ford (5-10, 178, Jr.), Tahj Gary (5-8, 220, Jr.), Bill Jackson (5-10, 195, So.) and Anthony Watkins (5-11, 202, Jr.) leaves some ambiguity for who will be the team’s feature back Sept. 3 at Wyoming – and which personnel packages Spurrier Jr. will be able to use.
“We don’t have the guy right now coming out of spring. All four of those guys have been OK. Not disappointed in anyone, but haven’t seen anyone separate from a talent level, from a consistency level to say, ‘OK, you’re the feature guy,’” Wilson said. “If we’re playing today, we’re probably playing two, three or even four of them, and that’s tough, because guys gotta get a rhythm.”
TU brings back a slew of capable, speedy receivers. Malachi Jones (6-0, 189, Jr.), who caught 37 passes and scored twice last year, is the veteran of the group and started a pair of games last season and five on his career. Nick Rempert (6-2, 186, Sr.), another returning contributor, has had a good offseason and will be one of few TU receivers to provide a size advantage against opposing secondaries downfield.
Marquis Shoulders (5-10, 165, So.) caught a touchdown against Jacksonville State last year and will bring his services back to the offense with possibility of inheriting a greater role. Braylin Presley (5-8, 170, So.), an Oklahoma State transfer, plays the fastest of the position group and has “courage and confidence in traffic.” He and Shoulders will likely return kicks and punts.
Tyler Tipton (6-2, 172, Jr.), who handled kickoffs last year, will reprise his role and add field goals to his duties.
Wilson and defensive coordinator Chris Polizzi are ambitious that TU’s defense can be multiple this year. Wilson expects to switch between a 4-2-5 and something that resembles a 3-3-5, much like the formation that former DC Luke Olson implemented last year.
“But we’re trying to do it, maybe, and not substitute to do it,” Wilson said. “We’re trying to have four D-Lineman but one of those D-Line guys could be a linebacker-type and then a D-End-type guy.”
It will take versatile athletes to manage that task. Defensive ends Vontroy Malone (6-5, 245, Fr.) and Ben Kopenski (6-1, 255, Gr.), an Oklahoma State transfer, will both be asked to be adaptable. Wilson heaped praise on both, especially on Kopensky, whom he said might have been the best in the position group since his arrival on campus.
“Vontroy had the best spring of all the guys,” Wilson said.
Zach Neilsen (6-1, 222, Fr.) is listed behind Malone on the depth chart, but Owen Ostroski (6-2, 262, So.) is listed at the same defensive end position as Kopenski, as well as Izuchukwu King Ani (6-4, 265, Jr.). Wilson would like to mix things up so that Kopenski, Malone and Ostroski’s talents can be used simultaneously.
“Owen’s got the ability to be a big anchor end, or maybe even to be, sometimes in the passing situations, maybe a three-technique, where he can play on the guard and give you a little size, a little bit more speed in passing situations,” Wilson said. “So you might see a combination of [Kopenski and Malone] plus Owen as the three guys getting the bulk of the play.”
Jayden Simon (6-3, 316, Jr.), who has trimmed about 30 pounds since coming off a knee injury, will likely be the team’s starting nose guard with Everitt Rogers (6-2, 305, Jr.), who started most of the 2022 season, getting some play in the rotation. Another returning starter, Joseph Anderson (6-0, 281, Sr.), is projected to start at defensive tackle.
The linebacking corps, another “pretty solid group,” brings in an anticipated transfer in Julien Simon, a USC transfer and brother of Jayden Simon. Mitchell Kulin (6-0, 218, Sr.), a Jenks alumnus who appeared in 10 games last year, will add experience to the group. Both Brian Johnson (6-1, 198, Sr.) and Coleton Smith (6-2, 230, Gr.) will be competing for playing time.
TU’s secondary brings back more career starts than any position group on the roster. Cornerback Tyree Carlisle (6-1, 180, Sr.) started 11 games last year; Safeties Kendarin Ray (6-4, 208, Sr.) and LJ Wallace (6-2, 210, Sr.) started 12 and nine games last year, respectively; Nickel Jaise Oliver (6-2, 210, Sr.) started thrice for the program last year and nine times in his career at TU; and Oklahoma State transfer Kanion Williams, played in six games for the Pokes last year.
Add Arkansas transfer and Tulsa native Keuan Parker (5-11, 178, Sr.) to the mix, and there is no doubt about the talent within the group.
A blessing and curse at the same time, the interchangeability of the players within the secondary has left Polizzi, also in charge of the secondary, and cornerbacks coach Michael Hunter Jr. scratching their heads about who to put where.
“Keuan Parker played nickel all spring. He’s probably our best corner,” Wilson said. “Jaise Oliver’s a veteran guy, a team leader, really good. . . LJ is a rock solid, really good player. . . K-Ray’s a rock. Kanion’s a good backup for him right there coming from Okie State.”
Scott Stanford (6-0, 190, Fr.) and Prokick Australia prospect Angus Davies (6-1, 195, Fr.) will battle for the role of starting punter.