Perhaps overlooked in the University of Tulsa’s resurgence has been the progression of an offensive line that is performing at a high level early in conference play.
After a rebuilding year in which it gave up a staggering 39 sacks, the line has allowed only three sacks through three games and has helped the Hurricane average more than 6 yards per play.
“Those guys are still jelling and coming together,” coach Philip Montgomery said. “I don’t think they’ve reached their full potential yet, but you’ve got to love where we’re headed with them.”
Last week’s lopsided win at South Florida showed how far the offensive line has come in a year’s time, with TU absolutely dominating the trenches, providing plenty of time for quarterback Zach Smith and creating wide lanes for the Hurricane running backs.
“You’ve got a bunch of dogs up there,” running back Corey Taylor II said. “It has been super exciting to run behind them this year.
“Obviously over that offseason just as we’ve progressed in our room they’ve definitely progressed. We’ve had guys step up in a major way, and they are doing an amazing job of making those lanes wide open.”
Heading into 2019, TU had only 27 starts among its offensive linemen. That doubled going into this season despite X’Zauvea Gadlin, who started every game last year at right tackle, opting out for COVID-19 reasons.
“We started so many young ones a year ago and we went through the growing pains with it,” Montgomery said, “but those guys have really come out now and are playing at a really great level.”
Under first-year offensive line coach Zach Hanson, the Hurricane has found a solid lineup with left tackle Tyler Smith, left guard Dante Bivens, center Gerard Wheeler, right guard Dylan Couch and right tackle Chris Paul.
Smith, a freshman All-America candidate, was injured late in the first half of the USF game and his status for Friday’s home game against East Carolina is unknown.
Another key piece for the TU offense has been tight end Ethan Hall, a redshirt freshman from Bixby. Although he is primarily used as a blocker, Hall scored a touchdown on his first career catch in last year’s season-finale meeting with East Carolina.
“This is a dude that just loves to play the game,” Montgomery said. “He’s going to do anything and everything you ask him to do at his utmost ability.
“He’s one of those guys that honestly before the game you don’t want to get too excited because you want him to stay under control. He is all about playing ball. He’s all about setting the tone. He has a physical presence about him, and he likes to bring that to the table.”
Hall made his first career start last week and delivered a monster block on a would-be tackler, paving the way for running back Deneric Prince to score a 62-yard touchdown.
“I love the energy that he brings to the game,” Taylor said. “He really adds a different dynamic to any meeting room and on the field. You watch the USF game and he’s moving the nose out of the way. He’s been doing a great job for us.”