Tulsa hopes for turnaround under Kragthorpe

Tuesday, August 19th 2003, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

TULSA, Okla. (AP) _ Losing has become an unfortunate way of life for Tulsa, something that didn't escape coach Steve Kragthorpe when he met the Golden Hurricane players for the first time.

``When I walked in the door, they were a little bit beaten down,'' said Kragthorpe, the Buffalo Bills' quarterbacks coach the past two years. ``We needed to become a confident football team.''

There hasn't been much for Tulsa to be confident about the past decade or so.

Tulsa has been among college football's biggest losers, winning only twice the past two seasons and without a winning record since 1991. Keith Burns was fired in December after going 7-21 over three seasons.

With the hiring of the cautiously optimistic Kragthorpe, the Golden Hurricane (1-11 last season) think those days might be over.

``We've got nowhere to go but up,'' said quarterback James Kilian. ``It's been tough the last couple of years.''

Kragthorpe already has gotten a glimpse of the challenge he faces.

Just seven months into his new job, one of Tulsa's few established stars _ junior quarterback Tyler Gooch _ decided to transfer to Oklahoma to focus on baseball.

It was a crushing blow to lose Gooch, who completed 55 percent of his passes for 2,100 yards and 17 touchdowns last season. The loss of Gooch still stings Kragthorpe, who received lots of praise for helping Bills quarterback Drew Bledsoe revive his slumping NFL career.

``That one's over,'' he snapped. ``That train has left the station. We're only going to talk about players that are on this team.''

Tulsa returns 13 starters from last season, but was 105th in the nation in total offense (317 yards a game) and 109th in defense (459 yards a game).

That may explain why Kragthorpe was in no rush to set his depth chart after spring practices. He hasn't yet named a starter at quarterback, but Kilian is the only one at the position who has taken a college snap.

``They're relatively equal right now,'' Kragthorpe said of the five quarterback candidates. ``We need to see if we can find a guy who will move the chains.''

Whoever emerges from that battle will have experienced receivers to throw to in Montiese Culton and Romby Bryant, who last year combined for 84 receptions, 1,008 yards and 11 touchdowns. Running back Eric Richardson rushed for 957 yards and six touchdowns in 2002.

But the quarterback also better be able to scramble. The offensive line allowed 35 sacks last season and lost center Anthony Taylor, its top player.

Kragthorpe turned the defense over to new coordinator Bob Graham, who was lured away from a West Virginia team that finished 32nd in the country in defense last season.

Graham favors a 3-3-5 alignment, which could cause confusion for the more-talented opponents. It helps that the secondary is one of the team's few strengths.

``It presents a lot of different problems for the offense,'' Kragthorpe said. ``You don't have a lot of time to prepare for it. It also fits the personnel we have _ it's hard to find four quality defensive linemen.''

Kragthorpe has exhibited none of the bravado of his predecessor, Burns, who came onto the job predicting that Tulsa would eventually surpass Oklahoma State. Instead, Kragthorpe has talked about laying a foundation for a program that has had little recent success.

If the Golden Hurricane can survive trips to Minnesota and Arkansas to start the season, the schedule gets much easier as the result of a watered-down Western Athletic Conference.

Either way, Kragthorpe and his staff realize not much is expected of them this season.

``You know, a lot of people thought I was crazy to come here,'' Graham said. ``But we accept that it's going to be a challenge. If we can't get it done, it can't be done here.''

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