The Tulsa Golden Hurricane have an absolutely fantastic mascot (Captain Cane), went undefeated in the AAC during the 2020 season, and… that’s about all they can hang their hat on right now. Apologies to their fanbase, but the last handful of seasons have been a disappointment — and 2021 has not gotten off to great start. They lost their opener to something called a “UC Davis”, which is apparently a big-time football program. The Hurricane then took on in-state rival Oklahoma State this past weekend, and gave up 21 fourth quarter points in a 28-23 loss.
It has been a rough start for a team that showed promise during the pandemic-shortened 2020 and finished in a tie for first in their conference. However, last season seems to be a rare outlier under current head coach Philip Montgomery. Since 2015, the team is 31-42 under Montgomery, with only two winning seasons. Remove 2016 (10-3) from the equation, and his record looks pretty dreadful.
Ohio State fans could actually be in store for a repeat of that 2016 season, which is when the Buckeyes last played Tulsa. J.T. Barrett led the Buckeyes to a 48-3 victory. The Hurricane’s best shot at hanging around in this game is to pound the rock with their running backs, and that is why I’ve tabbed Shamari Brooks as this week’s Offensive Player to Watch.
Brooks missed all of 2020 with an ACL injury, and is only Tulsa’s second-leading rusher through two games in 2021. So what makes him a player to watch? Well, prior to last season, Brooks had been a very productive back for the Golden Hurricane. His impressive career started as a true freshman in 2017, when he rushed for 687 yards and 10 touchdowns. He did so in just nine appearances, missing three games due to a broken collarbone.
Injuries like the collarbone one suffered as a freshman have robbed him of one full season, plus four additional games. They are likely part of the reason why he is splitting backfield reps with Deneric Prince, as he looks to bounce back from the ACL. Both backs ran well against UC Davis, and both struggled against Oklahoma State… but once fully up to speed, Brooks is the one capable of carrying Tulsa on his back.
In 2018 and 2019, Brooks played in all but one game and worked his way up to fifth on the program’s all-time rushing list. As a sophomore, his production was primarily volume-based. He only averaged 4.2 YPC, but carried the ball 229 times in 11 games. He was a workhorse. It wasn’t always pretty, but Tulsa’s offense had little else going for it. That’s how a team finishes with a 3-9 record. Opponents were able to stack the box against Brooks and limit his effectiveness. Despite being the focus of every defense, he was still able to run for nearly 1,000 yards.
2019 was a bit of a breakout for Brooks, and one that would earn him a few preseason award nominations prior to 2020. He crossed the 1,000-yard mark on the ground, finishing with 1,046. He added six touchdowns, and upped his YPC to 4.6. The YPC average was still nothing to brag about, but he was now a known commodity and running behind a less-than-imposing offensive line. For his 2019 performance, Brooks was named to the 2020 preseason watch list(s) for both the Doak Walker and Maxwell awards. However, last season was not meant to be for the talented running back, as he tore his ACL the week prior to Tulsa’s opener.
So far in 2021, Brooks has been 1B to Prince’s 1A as a ball carrier, but I am choosing not to ignore back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons (967 in 2018, but who’s counting). He toted the rock for 8.0 yards per carry in his first game back from injury and had the better average per touch against Oklahoma State. Neither back was impressive against the Cowboys, but it took Prince 21 touches to produce 79 total yards. Brooks accounted for 58 yards on only 12 opportunities. It is a small sample size, and Prince looked great against UC Davis, but I remain bullish on Brooks.
His counterpart in the backfield (Prince) has rushed for 676 yards in his entire career, and played second fiddle to Corey Taylor for Tulsa last season. He was unable to get on the field at Texas A&M, while Brooks was producing as the Golden Hurricane’s lead back. Prior to the UC Davis game, Brooks hadn’t played in well over a year, so it was always going to take time for him to get his legs back. He has had two games to do so, and now looks fully healthy. If the backs continue to split carries, I do believe Brooks will be the more effective runner.
Against the Buckeyes, Brooks should have an opportunity to prove that he is once again an NFL prospect. It hurts to admit, but Ohio State has shown nothing against the run so far in 2021. Mo Ibrahim and C.J. Verdell embarrassed the Silver Bullets, and Tulsa will (or should) rely heavily on the run as well. Their quarterback, Davis Brin, has totaled 425 yards though the air, to go with zero touchdowns. The Golden Hurricane want nothing to do with a shootout, so Brooks and Prince should see plenty of carries.
Whether it is Brooks, Prince, or even the early 70’s version of Drew Pearson (Tulsa alum - NFL HOF) on the field for Tulsa, the Ohio State defense should finally have a chance to pin its ears back and recapture the swagger that fans believe still exists. If the Golden Hurricane can establish dominance up front and run all over the Buckeyes, it could be a long, miserable season for Kerry Coombs and Co. That being said, Shamari Brooks is a proven back and poses a threat to the Buckeyes. It is good to see him on the field and productive after a serious injury, but here’s hoping he is not too productive in The Shoe on Saturday.