A brand new stadium, a new conference and a coach who had just engineered a five-win improvement. 2014 was going to be a fun year of Tulane football, even more fun than 2013, when Curtis Johnson turned a 2-10 team into a seven-game (5-3 in conference) winner. He also developed and put yet another wide receiver in the NFL (Ryan Grant), which he’s done his entire life. Furthermore, he would get to showcase his rising team at beautiful new Yulman Stadium instead of an empty Superdome, and in a new, tougher conference. What could go wrong?
Well, a lot. The Green Wave regressed to three wins and a measly 2-6 conference record in its first season in the American Athletic Conference. The team’s scoring average fell from 25 points per game to 16, which ranked 124th in the FBS. Defensively, Tulane allowed 351 yards and 21.4 points per game in 2013 (22nd and 18th nationally, respectively), compared to 388 yards and 28 points allowed per game (58th and 81st). Perhaps the biggest loss was Groza award-winning kicker Cairo Santos, who made all 38 of his field goal attempts in 2013. Tulane made just eight of 16 field goal attempts a season ago.
But all is not lost. The Green Wave return 13 starters, including two promising sophomores quarterback Tanner Lee and running back Sherman Badie. The groundwork of offensive improvement is there. Despite losing three starters in the secondary, Tulane returns some talented young defensive backs and a couple front seven studs. What will it amount to in 2015? Here’s a closer look.
Lee had a tough redshirt freshman season, tossing more interceptions (14) than touchdowns (12), completing just 55 percent of his passes for a measly 5.9 yards per attempt. But he’s a strong-armed and well-built quarterback, and the coaches have raved about his offseason and fall camp thus far. He’ll be helped by a deep and talented backfield that should be one of the conference’s best. Badie rushed for 688 yards on 121 carries (5.7 per carry) as a true freshmen and will see the bulk of the work. Junior Lazedrick Thompson is a nice compliment who rushed for 500 yards a season ago, and sophomore Dontrell Hilliard is a useful third-down back. Tulane’s pass-catchers averaged 10.1 yards per reception as a team last season, but a lot of the wide receivers were thrust into roles as true freshman and struggled. With wide receiver guru Johnson at the helm, expect the unit to improve. Sophomore Teddy Veal lead the team with 40 catches as a true freshman but averaged a poor 9.5 yards per catch. Redshirt junior Devon Breaux will have a much bigger role and could start, and young tight ends Trey Scott and Kendall Ardoin look like viable weapons. Expect Badie and Hilliard to catch a lot of passes too.
Ball-hawking corner (15 INTs in three seasons) Lorenzo Doss is a Denver Bronco after forgoing his senior season and entering the NFL Draft. Fellow former Green Wave corner Taurean Nixon joins him on the Broncos. (Doss was a fifth-round pick, Nixon a seventh-rounder). Tulane also lost its leading tackler from each of its last two seasons in safety Sam Scofield. Despite the losses in the secondary, the unit will be a strength for the Green Wave. Senior Darion Monroe, the highest-rated defensive recruit in the Johnson era, will start at free safety for the fourth straight season. Monroe was a top-30 player at his position and Tulane flipped him from Texas A&M. Sophomore corner Parry Nickerson – not Doss, Nixon or Scofield – led the Wave with six interceptions in 2014. Redshirt freshman safety Donnie Lewis Jr. drew positive reviews for his play in the spring and fall camp and could be the guy to replace Scofield. He’ll compete with senior Brandon Lebeau. Up front, defensive tackles Tanzel Smart (junior) and Sean Wilson (sophomore) are a formidable duo, and senior defensive end Royce LaFrance has first-team all-conference ability. However, he missed spring practices for academic reasons. The defense’s leader is linebacker Nico Marley. He’s only 5-foot-10 and 210 pounds, but the junior led the Green Wave with 13.5 tackles for a loss and was second in total tackles with 82. Juniors Edward Williams and Eric Thomas are solid bets to start at the other linebacker spots.
Tulane has the pieces to right the ship after last season’s slump. Johnson said he has been pleased with his team in fall camp thus far, but it needs to translate on the field before anyone gets too excited. If Lee’s improvement carries over, Tulane’s offense should bounce back to respectability. It won’t put up 30 points per game, but it should be able to move the ball well enough and control the clock with its solid running game. Badie is a home run threat in the backfield and defenses will have to game plan specifically for him. The Wave’s defense has some playmakers and should be closer to its 2013 form, but it would take a hit if LaFrance’s academic issues appear during the season. The floor for Tulane is last season’s record, and if all goes well, the ceiling could be a bowl game. But with Duke and Georgia Tech to start the season, Tulane could play good football and start 0-2. It will almost certainly need a .500 conference record to have a shot at a bowl. Four conference wins will require Tulane to knock off a quality opponent or two. Johnson proved he can turn a team around fast, but six overall wins and a bowl is a stretch. Four or five wins is more a realistic number this season.