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August 4, 2012TULSA, Okla. -- In Tulsa's rise to relevance over the past decade, a big part of its reputation has been built around an offense that led the nation in total yards in consecutive seasons and could produce as well as any team in college football.
And yet, the only time the Golden Hurricane have come away with a Conference USA title during that span was when they put together the league's best defense in 2005.
Entering his second season as head coach, that point is not lost on Bill Blankenship.
"I don't think that's gone out of style. The national championships are still being won by teams that play really good defense. I think conference championships are won by teams that play really good defense, even in Conference USA," Blankenship said Friday at the team's media day.
"So, it's going to be really important for us to play good defense, and I'm excited about that unit. I will not hesitate to brag on what I think has a chance to be the best defense in Conference USA."
Cody Green garnered much of the attention during the spring, winning the starting quarterback's job after transferring from Nebraska, but there's plenty of star power on the other side of the ball, too.
Senior safety Dexter McCoil, who has already tied the school record with 13 career interceptions, highlights the defense that returns seven starters from last season and two others with plenty of experience -- cornerback John Flanders, who sat out all of last season because of academics, and linebacker DeAundre Brown.
"I think we have a lot of experience, a lot of good players that know what it takes to win in big games," McCoil said. "Everybody's come back."
All that experience is even more valuable after a full season to adapt to defensive coordinator Brent Guy's system, which involved switching from a three-man front to going with four defensive linemen. Three starters are back up front, including tackles Derrick Jackson and Daeshon Bufford -- who Guy considers the unsung heroes of his defense for dealing with double-teams.
The main question mark is at middle linebacker, where tackling machine Curnelius Arnick must be replaced. Arnick had 159 tackles last season, second in the nation behind Bronko Nagurski Award-winning linebacker Luke Kuechly of Boston College. Arnick had two games with 18 tackles and another with 19.
Guy doesn't expect any one player to be able to fill Arnick's role.
"I don't know if there's a guy in there that can make 19 tackles by himself, so we're going to have to do it by committee. That is physically a challenge to go make 19 tackles in a college football game. It's physically hard to do," Guy said.
Among the candidates to bolster the linebacker corps are Brown, who made 12 of his 18 career starts back in 2009, and special teams ace DeWitt Jennings. Another returning starter, Shawn Jackson, has been suspended the first three games.
The strength of the unit a year ago was against the run, allowing opponents only 3.2 yards per carry. But the Golden Hurricane were 117th out of 120 Bowl Subdivision teams in pass defense and only five teams allowed more third-down conversions last season.
"That's the first thing that we have to do both in our rush defense and pass defense this year is eliminate plays. Get off the field. More three-and-outs," Guy said. "As we do that, our defense will get better and better and give us an opportunity to win a conference championship."
Even with last year's struggles, Tulsa was in the mix for the C-USA crown until the last week of the regular season. After early losses to Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Boise State, the Golden Hurricane reeled off seven straight wins in league play and faced undefeated Houston for the West Division title in the season finale.
With a loss, they settled for a trip to the Armed Forces Bowl and lost 24-21 to BYU on a fake spike touchdown play with 11 seconds left.
With so many returners back, Guy believes he'll be able to add another layer to his defense in the staff's second year in charge.
"That's what we're going to get better at doing this year, being able to disguise, move to our pressures and everything that we're doing and not give it away pre-snap," he said. "That's the first thing that those quarterbacks are looking for is anything in the back end that tells me what's coming."
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