Inside Tulsa Sports / Miles Lacy
Possessing an experienced offensive line that is widely considered to be one of the best in all of college football for the upcoming season, there only seems to be one real question about Tulsa’s O-line.
How dominant can they be?
“As you talk about these guys, this is the strength of our team,” said TU coach Philip Montgomery, who obviously isn’t going to say they will dominate the opposition. “These guys work really well together. They take pride in what they do. We’ve got such good chemistry, and Coach (Mike) Bloesch does such a great job with them.”
While the line likely doesn’t boast a bunch of high NFL draft picks, it is full of very good college players who play well together. And some will get their chance at the next level.
The line was so good last year that four of the five starters were named either first or second team All-AAC in 2016. And that is not an easy honor for TU players to get. By contrast, the defense had zero players get that honor. On offense, only three others were picked - James Flanders (first team), Keevan Lucas (first team) and D'Angelo Brewer (second team).
One of Montgomery’s favorite topics is left tackle Evan Plagg. After all, what’s not to like? Plagg started out at TU as a walk-on and wound up being the cornerstone of the offensive line.
“I put Evan on scholarship my first year here and he has been my starting left tackle ever since,” Montgomery said of the 6-foot-3, 295-pound senior from Guthrie who was a second team All-AAC selection. “A guy that’s got great athleticism, great punch, plays with a chip on his shoulder. Has been just a staple for us up front. Smart kid, just a pleasure to be around.
“I think Evan is a guy that will have a chance to play at the next level - maybe not at the tackle spot, he may have to move inside, but a guy that I know can really play and do the things that you’ve got to do.”
Unfortunately for Plagg and the rest of TU, he won’t be on the same line again with fellow Guthrie grad Blake Belcher, a first-team All AAC selection in 2016 who chose to forego a final year of eligibly due to injuries. Plagg and Belcher had teamed up to lead Guthrie to an undefeated, Class 5A state championship in 2011.
“It was a decision for him. He got the sixth year back. He was already graduated, and fought through some injuries last year,” Montgomery said of Belcher. “He just thought it was time to move on and get to the next stage of his life. You love the way he played for us. You hate losing a guy like that. Great leader, great player. But you understand it, too.”
Belcher’s starting spot at right guard is the one spot on the line that is up for grabs, and could be the most interesting battle to watch in the fall.
“At the right guard spot, we’ve got a pretty good competition going,” Montgomery added. “Zac Uhles and Tiller Bucktrot are the guys competing for that spot.”
Uhles, a 6-3, 287-pound senior from Norman, has worked his way up every year and got considerable playing time, especially at right tackle, when Willie Wright was banged up.
“Zac Uhles was kind of our sixth offensive lineman last year. He played multiple spots. He’s vying for that spot and had a really good spring,” Montgomery said. “I was proud of what he did. A guy that really wants to be in that starting group. He’s doing everything he can to make that happen.”
The battle between Uhles and Bucktrot is the classic battle of experience versus potential. Bucktrot, a 6-5, 336-pound redshirt freshman from Stroud, is quite simply a load. The biggest question mark about him is his readiness to start at a position that requires more experience than most.
“Tiller’s a giant that’s very mobile. He loves football,” Montgomery said. “He’s just young, and it takes time to develop. So as he continues to keep developing, I think the competition at that spot is going to get better and better.”
Willie Wright has been a pleasant surprise since moving from defensive tackle after redshirting his first season out of high school from Houston Cypress Ridge, where he started at offensive tackle his last two seasons there.
Wright, a 6-foot-3, 296-pound junior, took over at right tackle as a redshirt freshman in the middle of the first game of 2015 after Belcher blew out his knee.
“Willie is a guy that in my opinion should have been an all-conference selection,” Montgomery explained. “He’s done an outstanding job. He’s very athletic, he can really get out and run. Did a much better job as far as just moving people.”
One distinction Wright has is that he is the only starter on the line who is not from Oklahoma.
At left guard, Tyler Bowling took command of the position last season as a redshirt sophomore. At 6-6 and 325-pounds, the Yukon grad is imposing and was a second-team All-AAC selection in 2016.
“Tyler is a big guy who has really transformed his body to be able to do some of the things that we’ve asked him to do,” Montgomery described. “He is playing with a great motor and purpose. He has done an outstanding job for us.”
Rounding out the offensive line is center Chandler Miller, who will be starting for the third consecutive season. The 6-3, 293-pound junior from Bixby was a first-team All-AAC selection last season.
“The guy that holds it all together is Chandler Miller,” Montgomery said. “He’s one of the best centers I’ve been around. He really takes care of making all the right calls, keeping everyone on the same page, and does an outstanding job in the middle for us.”
Miller was recently named to the preseason watch lists for the Rimington Trophy (top center) and Outland Trophy (top interior lineman). Plagg joined Miller on the Outland Trophy watch list.
Depth usually is a key in the offensive line, as players get banged up, whether it be for a few plays, a few games, or for the season. Knowing that a quality player like Uhles or Bucktrot will be a backup is reassuring, but the Golden Hurricane will need more young players who are ready to step up, just in case.
Waahid Muhammad is backing up Plagg at left tackle. The 6-5, 320-pound redshirt freshman is from Waco (Texas), which undoubtedly didn’t hurt Tulsa’s chance to land him because of Montgomery’s years coaching at Baylor.
“Waahid is a kid that, coming out of Waco, didn’t have a lot of football experience,” Montgomery said of Muhammad, who played soccer and basketball before beginning to play football as a high school junior. “He just continues to get better and better. He works with a great motor. Always looking for ways to get better. He’s a guy in the future I think is going to be really good.”
Frederick is a 6-4, 330-pound redshirt freshman who was a much-heralded recruit from Broken Arrow.
“Rowdy’s been facing some medical things. He had to have surgery again after the bowl game,” Montgomery said. “He’s kind of been in and out. Actually, he had to take the spring off to recover from that surgery. We’ll see how Rowdy comes back. He’s got the talent to do whatever he wants to do. We just got to get over some of the medical things with him.”
Ivy, a 6-3, 285-pound sophomore from Wichita, is described by Montgomery as “a tackle who’s really athletic.” Montgomery said both Ivy and Greathouse, a 6-5, 295-pound redshirt freshman center, are both really improved. Sophomore guard Tristan Wyatt (6-4, 299) and junior tackle Isaac Johnson (6-6, 275) are in the mix as well and battling for spots on the depth chart.
Montgomery is also excited about all three of his freshmen newcomers from Texas.
“Dante Bivins (6-3, 310) is coming in. I’ve got high hopes for him and Gerard Wheeler (6-4, 285) and Chris Paul (6-4, 290). Those guys in that signing class have got a chance to be good,” Montgomery added.
That trio likely won’t be needed this season. Especially if the returning group lives up to their realistic expectations.