The 2011 Tulane season was one to forget.
After a 2-1 start, the season crumbled as the team lost their last 10 games down the stretch. Head coach Bob Toledo didn’t make it through that forgettable run. He resigned after the record reached 2-5. Interim head coach Mark Hutson went 0-6 to finish the year off. Enter Curtis “CJ” Johnson.
The former Saints’ wide receivers’ coach will try to turn around a program that is near rock bottom and searching for its first winning season since 2002.
On paper, the hire looks like a slam dunk.
The New Orleans native gets his first head coaching gig in the same city he’s spent the past five years. His receiving corps helped the Saints win their first NFL title in 2009, and the team reached the playoffs in three of his five seasons. At age 50, the St. Charles High graduate brings more than 25 years of experience from both the collegiate and professional ranks. The only thing that’s not on paper for Johnson is head coaching experience.
CJ won’t be the only new face wearing green and white, barking out orders in New Orleans. His staff consists of eight coaches new to Tulane including offensive coordinator Eric Price and co-defensive coordinators Jon Sumrall and Lionel Washington.
Experience, Playmakers return on Offense
On the offensive side of the ball, the Green Wave returns seven starters from the 2011 campaign. Quarterback Ryan Griffin hopes to improve on last year’s effort. The California native ranked sixth in Conference USA in passing yards per game (192.5) and was seventh in yards of total offense per game (199) a year ago. Griffin started all 13 games for the Green Wave a year ago and has 30 starts under his belt heading into his senior year. The All-Conference USA candidate will have familiar weapons back too.
Tight ends Brock Sanders and Matt Marfisi are back with 15 combined starts, and wide receiver Wilson Van Hooser who led the team in 2011 with four touchdown receptions returns as well. Running Back Orleans Darkwa who led the team in rushing with 13 touchdowns will carry the bulk of the load if last year is any indication. The Doak Walker Candidate returns with 17 career starts entering his junior campaign. The All Conference-USA second teamer rushed the ball 210 times for 924 yards. He was efficient in the passing game too, leading the team with 37 receptions. The offensive line projects to start a pair of seniors, a junior and two freshmen.
Defense looks to stiffen up
The Tulane defense was worst in C-USA by allowing 487 points in 2011. That stat will have to change in 2012 if the Green Wave players are going to compete for a championship. The good news is, like the offense, seven starters return on this side of the ball. The teams leading tackler is back as linebacker Trent Mackey returns for his senior year. The C-USA first teamer in 2011 ranked second in the league with 145 total tackles. The two-year Tulane letterman and three-year collegiate letterwinner has played in 35 career games with 24 starts. He’s posted 279 tackles (162 solo, 117 assists), 21.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, three forces fumbles and two interceptions. Simply put, he has a nose for the ball. Fellow linebackers Darryl Farley and Dominique Robertson add experience to the mix, with a combined 37 starts between the two. The defensive line is the youngest group of the bunch. Michael Pierce Jr. will carry his all-freshman honors into his sophomore year. The Alabama native played in all 13 games a year ago and tallied 15 tackles and one tackle for loss. In the secondary, two seniors, cornerback Ryan Travis and safety Shakiel Smith will anchor the unit that gave up just over 245 yards in the air in 2011.
Cairo Santos is set to resume the duties as kicker. The junior connected on 11 of 18 of his field goal attempts in his sophomore year.
Junior Jonathan Ginsburgh returns at the punter position after averaging 41.7 yards a punt in 2011. Derrick Strozier is expected to handle kickoffs and punts in the return game.
Improvement ahead but be patient
The Curtis Johnson era officially begins on Sept. 1 when the Green Wave hosts Rutgers in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Johnson’s squad will open C-USA play the following week on the road against Tulsa.
Tulane will also play in-state foes Louisiana-Monroe and Louisiana Lafayette.
New leadership under Johnson and 17 returning starters make it almost a lock to improve the Green Wave’s 2-11 record from 2011. That won’t be the hard part.
The challenge is how fast “CJ” can have the Wave contending for conference titles. Give him a honeymoon year. Don’t look for the Wave to take home any trophies in 2012, but it could be a huge step forward to getting the program back on track.