There is a familiar refrain in the American Conference: A team that has had an awful decade-plus hires a coach who has won at every level of football. This year, that team is Tulane and the coach is Willie Fritz (pictured).
Since 2000, Tulane has as many bowl berths as 10-loss seasons (three). The Green Wave has topped four wins just once since 2005. Former head coach Curtis Johnson led the team to a 7-6 record in 2013, but won six total games the next two years and was fired after the 2015 season.
Tulane’s on-paper outlook became a lot stronger by hiring Fritz, who has turned a moribund junior college, Division II and FCS program into a winner. Most recently, he took Georgia State, a start-up FBS program, and won the Sun Belt in his first year (GSU’s first year in FBS). He won two JUCO national titles at Blinn College in the 1990s, made the Division II playoffs once at Central Missouri and took Sam Houston State to back-to-back FCS title games in 2011 and 2012.
There’s no real way to predict if the promising outlook will materialize. If Fritz is going to build Tulane into a winner, he probably won’t do it right away. But a couple things are clear: Tulane has a coach with a history of winning, and he will run the ball a lot.
Fritz installed a spread-to-run, option-heavy offense that is much different from the pro-style attack that Tulane ran under Johnson. Considering Tulane’s offensive struggles last season, (317 yards per game, scored 14 points or fewer seven times), new personnel and a completely new system is OK.
Tanner Lee and Jordy Joseph, last year’s two main quarterbacks, combined to complete only 51 percent of their passes and threw for 6.2 yards per attempt. Both are gone, with Lee transferring to Nebraska. Neither was a great fit for Fritz’s offense.
Fritz will let sophomore Glen Cuiellette and freshman Darius Bradwell battle for the quarterback job. Both are effective runners, but inconsistent in the passing game. Bradwell committed to Fritz at GSU and followed him to Tulane. At GSU, Fritz had two quarterbacks split time in 2015. Tulane could do the same in 2016.
Tulane returns its top two rushers in juniors Dontrell Hilliard and Sherman Badie, who combined for 956 yards on 5.1 yard per attempt. Seniors Josh Rounds (5.9 ypa) and Lazedrick Thompson should also get carries.
Last season’s top receiver, Teddy Veal, transferred to Louisiana Tech. Senior Devon Breaux (25 catches, 431 yards) is the top returning target. He originally left the team in January to focus on track, but returned after spring ball. He’s a home-run threat who averaged 17.2 yards per catch, but caught only seven balls for 75 yards in his final six games. Junior Trey Scott and sophomore Terren Encalade should have significant roles in the passing game. Encalade missed all of 2015 due to injury.
The offensive line loses three starters from a unit that struggled in 2015, It returns the right side of the line in Chris Taylor and Todd Jacquet, which has 46 career starts. For Fritz’s spread-option running scheme to be fully effective, the line has to improve and show more mobility.
Under the direction of Jack Curtis, who came with Fritz from GSU, this should be Tulane’s better unit. The Green Wave weren’t good defensively last year (36.2 ppg allowed), but the defense returns a few playmakers that shined despite the poor numbers. Senior defensive tackle Tanzel Smart posted 13 tackles for loss and was named first-team all-conference, although the line loses Royce LaFrance, who led the team in sacks. Juniors Ade Aruna (defensive end) and Sean Wilson (nose tackle) should take over starting roles vacated by LaFrance and Corey Redwine, respectively.
Senior outside linebacker Nino Marley was the team’s leading tackler in 2015 (72 tackles, 13 tfl) and earned first-team all-AAC honors. He’s merely 5-foot-10 and 208 pounds, but will play a crucial role in Tulane’s defense again. With the top six linebackers returning, there’s no shortage of experience at the position, but the group still needs to play better.
In the secondary, the Green Wave lose safety Darion Monroe, a four-year starter and one of the highest-rated players to sign with Tulane under Curtis Johnson. Junior corner Parry Nickerson regressed in 2015 after a standout 2014 as a freshman. Junior Jarrod Franklin could play anywhere in the secondary and was the team’s second-leading tackler. Otherwise, there are a lot of unknowns.
It’s not insane to believe that Tulane’s defense could improve and lead the Green Wave to an upset or two, but it’s unlikely. Even with two first-team all-conference players returning and a corner (Nickerson) capable of such honors, Tulane still has to find a pass rush, which was nonexistent last year outside of LaFrance, and replace its best defensive back (Monroe). There should be some improvement on the defense, but not enough to carry an inexperienced offense that’s likely to struggle.
Offensively, there’s enough skill at quarterback and running back to have a much-improved rushing attack. But uncertainty and ineffectiveness along the offensive line combined with a limited passing game should temper the offensive expectations. Fritz doesn’t throw a lot and quarterbacks don’t need to be top-level passers in his system. But with Cuiellette and Bradwell’s lack of experience running the complicated options and reads, plus their passing struggles in spring, it’s hard to picture a consistently effective offense. Fritz needs more than a year to get the players he needs to run his offense and his quarterbacks need experience in it.
There’s reason for Tulane fans to have hope for the future under Fritz, but another bottom-of-the-conference season seems likely in 2016.