Last season, the Tulane Green Wave was about as young as a Division I team can get. As head coach Curtis Johnson said recently, “A year ago we played a tough schedule and we played the most freshmen in the NCAA with 23. Right now we're on the rise.” The Green Wave expects to see a lot of growth from their young players and improve on last year’s disappointing 3–9 record.
It will be a quick test for the Green Wave, who open the season against a Duke team that won nine games last year. The Green Wave’s first eight contests include playing six teams that won at least eight games during the 2014 NCAA season. If the Green Wave can survive that stretch at .500 or above, they have a good chance to qualify for a bowl game this season (six wins are required). Here are five things to look for from the Green Wave in order for them to advance.
1. Tanner Lee
Last year, the Green Wave started freshman quarterback Tanner Lee. Lee threw for 1962 yards with a 55.1% completion percentage, tossing 12 touchdowns and with 14 interceptions. Of course, those are not the numbers you want from your starting quarterback. But this is also the first time in Johnson’s coaching career with the Green Wave when he’ll have the same starting QB for multiple years (both Ryan Griffin and Nick Montana left after one year at the starting job).
There’s a lot of optimism about growth. Tulane’s offensive coordinator, Eric Price, mentioned that even last year, you could see that Lee would grow with experience as a QB. Price said, “There were many times during the season last year when something bad happened and he reacted the correct way.…he learned from it. He didn't freak out. He didn't necessarily get worse because something was frustrating him. He's got the intangibles."
Lee seems to be more than embracing his role. He mentioned that he had been waiting for the opening of training camp, and doing all that he could to prepare himself and his teammates. Lee said, “It felt great to get back out there…we've been waiting all summer long. We were getting bored just working out and watching film. It was good to get back out there."
2. General Growth on Offense
Last year, the Green Wave relied heavily on skill players on offense who had no prior game experience. Running back Sherman Badie, along with Lee, were both redshirt freshmen. Running back Dontrell Hilliard and wide receiver Teddy Veal were both true freshmen. While Lee led the team in passing yards, Badie led the team in rushing yards, Veal led in receiving yards, and Hilliard led in all-purpose yards.
That’s quite an impressive feat, when you consider how young the team was in general—for those players to take the reins as a unit without the aid of other veteran skill players. As Price mentioned, "Last year at this time the players didn't even know where the dorm room was, let alone know the offense." Yet those players led the team on offense. Assuming they can grow collectively, the Green Wave should be ready to pack quite a punch on offense this year. Add these players to freshman Devin Glenn (a homegrown player from New Orleans) and sophomore tight end Trey Scott (both of whom were singled out by The Advocate’s Scott Kushner for finding space in training camp) and the Green Wave could have a really powerful attack.
3. Back End of the Defense
On a team that regularly used nickelback sets last year, the Green Wave is going to need some players to step up. Tulane lost Lorenzo Doss and Taurean Nixon to the NFL, with both being selected by the Denver Broncos. Along with junior Richard Allen (who played seven games last year), the Green Wave will be looking for help at the cornerback position from redshirt freshman Donnie Lewis and true freshmen Dedrick Shy and Jeremie Francis (both from Warren Easton), Douglas Henry and Taris Shenall. All of these players are relative unknowns, but for the Tulane football team to improve on their defense, they are all going to need to step it up.
But the Green Wave does have some talented players returning to the back end of the defense. Senior safety Darion Monroe had 73 tackles last season (3rd on the team) and 2 forced fumbles. Redshirt sophomore cornerback Parry Nickerson led the team with six interceptions, which was second in the conference. If those players can step up, and some of the younger players can prove to be up to the occasion, the Green Wave’s defense can improve.
4. Special Teams
Last year, special teams was one of the biggest flaws for the Green Wave. A laundry list of miscues decided a bunch of close games: the missed 21-yard field goal in the fourth quarter against Tulsa, which resulted in a double-overtime loss; the blocked punt against Georgia Tech; the botched punt snap against University of Central Florida; and the muffed punts by Veal against Duke and Cincinnati.
All of those plays cost the team points in games that were decided by one or two possessions. Giving up easy points off of special teams is one of the quickest ways to demoralize a team. For the Green Wave to have a better season, this must be cleared up. Johnson has promoted Doug Lichtenberger to special teams coordinator, and that will be one of the most crucial jobs in the program this year. If the Green Wave can convert field goals and avoid turnovers on special teams, they can make some noise in the conference this season.
5. No Place Like Home
The Green Wave also won’t have to worry about Yulman Stadium construction this year. Last year’s training camp required a 45-minute drive each way since the stadium wasn’t ready, eating up a good chunk of the team's day. Also, at one point last year, the stadium was so hot that an opposing team’s cheerleader claimed her sneakers melted.
Those issues won’t exist this year. The Green Wave should be able to fully enjoy the benefits of their stadium, without having to worry about their home field. More time on the practice field can only help the team. As well, having the stadium showed benefits even in year one, as the Green Wave saw a huge boost in attendance. With a fully functional stadium and a young and improving team, this year should only be better.
Photos courtesy of the Tulane Athletic Department