Tulane Season Preview

16:30 November 12, 2014

New Stadium Brings the Game Home

 It’ll look a lot more like football season on Tulane’s campus this year. For the first time in 40 years students may want to go elsewhere to study on Saturday. The new 30,000-seat Yulman Stadium will be home to six Green Wave games this fall. The $75 million addition to New Orleans was built at just the right time, too.


 “The new stadium will give us a true home field advantage, invigorate our fan base and serve as a concrete example to recruits that we are committed to winning in the American Athletic Conference,” third year head coach Curtis Johnson said. With the new stadium comes a new conference to compete in. It’s a tougher one than what they played in (Conference USA) from 1995-2013. But, Johnson embraces that challenge, “You are always working to improve and get better, and the new conference and tougher schedule provide more incentive to improve.” 

Indeed, the Green Wave have improved since Johnson took over in 2011. Last year, he guided them to their first winning season and bowl appearance since the 2001 season. Many people expected improvement. I’m not sure anyone saw seven wins coming. But, it makes sense. Louisiana is loaded with Division I-FBS talent and Johnson is out leaving no stone unturned looking for it. “We’ve made great progress in the state and will continue to recruit the best kids that the state has to offer,” he said. LSU can’t sign them all and there’s plenty leftover so that Tulane, UL Lafayette, UL Monroe, Southeastern and Louisiana Tech can all be good programs with the majority of their players coming from the Bayou State. The formula is quite simple and so far it has worked for coach Johnson and his staff. Twenty of their 23 players in the incoming freshman class are from Louisiana. 

Offense wasn’t the bright spot in the banner year for Tulane in 2013. They’ll need to improve production to hang with new conference foes like Georgia Tech, UCF, Cincinnati and Houston. They’ll try to replace key contributors like running back Orleans Darkwa (12 td) and wide receiver Ryan Grant (77 rec., 1,039 yards, 9 td). “It’s an area where we expect guys who have had smaller roles to step in and take their places as team leaders and produce on the field,” Johnson said. The offense averaged 24.8 points a game last season and will likely need to improve on that to go bowling for a second-straight season. At quarterback, Devon Powell (sophomore) and Nick Montana (senior) found themselves listed behind redshirt freshman Tanner Lee on the post-spring depth chart. Johnson said Lee has “developed tremendously” since arriving on campus in 2013 and that the two older guys will be “pushed greatly” by the youngster. 

So who takes the first snap behind center in the season opener August 28 in Tulsa? “The quarterback who shows the best ability to deliver the ball on time and on target will be the starter.” Johnson singled out senior receivers Xavier Rush and Justyn Shackleford as guys who will be the “focal point” of the passing game, regardless of who is throwing the ball. Those two guys combined to catch 53 passes for just over 600 yards in the shadow of Ryan Grant’s senior campaign. Sherman Badie and Josh Rounds will do most of work from the running back spot. They’ll get to run behind an experienced offensive line that delivers tackles, as wells as a guard and some backup players with an experience set to join them. Johnson makes no secret about it: “Their play will greatly determine how we perform as an offense. I like that the group finally has some experience with multiple guys who have played and they have a couple more years in the weight room. That could come in handy against defenses that will be bigger, stronger and quicker than what they’ve seen in recent years. 
The head coach gives a lot of credit for last year’s success to the defense. “We played great and were able to rally around that group to play a team game,” he said. But the pressure up front from Julius Warmsly (18 tackles for loss) and Chris Davenport will be hard to replace. This year’s group is less proven but will get their chance this fall. Johnson feels there is depth at the defensive line position with guys waiting their turn. Ends Tyler Gilbert and Royce LaFrance combined for 9.5 sacks and 16 tackles for loss last year. Tackles Corey Redwine, Kenny Welcome and Tanzel Smart look to continue to make it tough on the opponent to run the ball up the middle. “(They) are ready to be full-time players,” Johnson stated. The linebackers are young and need to be healthy this fall. Niko Marley started 12 games last season but the unit is replacing six other guys who played valuable roles. The secondary could help the inexperience at linebacker. Both safeties (Sam Scofield and Darion Monroe) return and Lorenzo Doss is back too. Doss was a second team All-American (Sports Illustrated) and lead the team with seven interceptions. Opposite him will be senior Taurean Nixon at the other cornerback spot. “It’s tremendous to have experience in the defensive backfield with the direction offenses are going in terms of the passing game,” Johnson said. “They’ll be able to handle calls and adjustments and let the linebackers focus on doing their job.”

Regardless of how his 2013 season went, Tulane will miss Cairo Santos. He was the best kicker in school history and replacing him won’t be easy. Junior Steven Broccoli and freshman Andrew DiRocco will battle to try and fill Santos’ shoes. They’ll battle it out in fall camp to see who gets the first shot. Peter Picerelli is back at punter and Devin Boutte, Kendrick Banks and Sherman Badie will be the special team returners.  
Because of the big step forward in 2013, the expectations surrounding the program are high. I can’t imagine Johnson wanting it any different. To expect anything better than last year may be wishful thinking for Green Wave fans. There’s inexperience at key positions, little depth and a tougher schedule.  But it’s clear that the program is heading in the right direction and in a hurry. The staff is not only recruiting well, they’re developing talent too. It may be hard to imagine, but Tulane could easily have more losses in 2014 and be a better football team overall. Consider it just a speed bump if it’s a step back for this bunch. 

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