TULSA (AP) — Todd Graham doesn’t see the nation’s No. 1 offense as anything for Tulsa to brag about. The second-year head coach is solely focused on building a champion.

“I don’t care to be the No. 1 offense in the country and not to win the conference championship,” Graham said Tuesday at the start of Tulsa’s spring practice. “I want to win the conference championship, and to do that you’ve got to play championship defense.”

Rebuilding a defense that was the best in Conference USA when Graham was the coordinator will be one of the top priorities for the Golden Hurricane this spring. Gone is the entire linebacking corps and both safeties, and Graham has even moved around some of the defensive coaches on his staff.

And the offense will need some attention too. Of the two positions that won’t have starters returning, one is quarterback. Paul Smith leaves after setting Tulsa’s school records for passing in a season and a career, and a new signal-caller will need to step in to keep the offense chugging along.

“I’m excited about it because I think there’s a lot of things specifically we can get better at,” said Graham, who went 10-4 and guided Tulsa to a 63-7 GMAC Bowl win against Bowling Green in his first season. “I don’t run the defense, I don’t run the offense. My job is to see where are the areas that we need to get better at and dictate the vision for that area and how do we fix it, instead of giving it lip service.”

Graham shifted defensive coordinator Keith Patterson’s focus from linebackers to defensive backs to try to eliminate coverage woes that allowed opponents to throw 28 touchdown passes last season. He also assigned receivers coach Bill Blankenship to special teams full time, seeking to rectify kickoff problems that gave opponents favorable field position.

“We’re going to make a big, big push to get better big-time in the kicking game,” Graham said.

While all that is going on, the competition at quarterback will be hard to overlook. The candidates include redshirt sophomore Clark Harrell and junior college transfer Jacob Bower, and A.J. Whitmore will also be in the mix after being featured last season in the “Wildcat” formation that offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn brought over from Arkansas.

But the early favorite will be senior David Johnson, Smith’s longtime backup.

“It definitely starts with him. He’s going to get a great look,” Malzahn said. “He’s got a lot of great leadership qualities, a strong arm and he runs well.”

Harrell, the brother of Texas Tech quarterback Graham Harrell, also has the advantage of experience in Tulsa’s system. Bower comes in after throwing for more than 3,000 yards and 35 touchdowns last season for Bakersfield (Calif.) Community College.

“His biggest challenge is learning all the terminology. He’s learning a new system,” Malzahn said. “The other two have an advantage from the point that they’ve been here. They know the reads, they know the terminology, so he’s got his hands full. But he is a big, strong athlete, a kid that can throw it for a mile.”

Whoever emerges gets to take over the first major college team ever to have a 5,000-yard passer, three 1,000-yard receivers and a 1,000-yard rusher in a single season. And all but the 5,000-yard passer are back.

At those positions, the challenge is to build quality depth and get the players in prime condition to run Malzahn’s frenetic — and sometimes quirky — no-huddle scheme that averaged 544 yards last season. Graham compares it to his early years as an assistant at West Virginia, when the Mountaineers spread offense was first being installed.

“It took us a year and a half to get in shape to be able to run the offense,” Graham said. “We’re running the offense fast this year, but we’re as tired as other teams.”

Graham said the return of strength coach Shawn Griswold will help accelerate that process, and he’s already noticed results in one key area.

“Speed, speed, speed, speed, speed. That’s what people have seen this year with the No. 1 offense in the country,” Graham said. “Speed is what it’s about, and we’re a lot faster team than we were three months ago.”

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