Youth. Youth. Tulane once again has a surfeit of youth - call it a generation gap - on the 2006 depth chart and there's a major reasons for this situation.
Among the young players, defined as having less than two years in the program, on the depth chart's two-deep are three sophomore linebackers - James Dillard, Evan Lee, and Jordan Ellis - and two true freshmen Cody Sparks, and Josh Mitzel.
Dillard, is the starter at will linebacker, Ellis and Jordan are in a knockdown-dragout fight for the starting job at middle linebacker. Betweem them, they have played in 28 games - mostly on special teams - and have made one start. And the other linebackers - Sparks, Mitzel, and senior Terrence Peterson - have as little game experience at the position as these three, or are true freshmen with no game experience.
Sophomore defensive end Sean Carney played extensively last season and is expected to be a starter this season.
Additionally, as many as five more true freshmen - defensive end Logan Kelley, defensive tackle Oscar Ponce de Leon, linebacker Adam Kwentua, safety Travis Burks, safety Chinoso Echebelem, and cornerback Alex Wacha may see action on defense this season.
The CW in football is that the younger you are, the more you depend on true freshmen, the more games you lose. Youth does not serve when you ask a 18-or-19-year old to stand up to the physical pounding of 22-23 year olds for four quarters or to remember the right assignment change when he hears a call a second or two before the snap.
Younger players are less certain of their assignments than the veterans who've been hearing these calls for three, four, or five years. If you're less certain of what to do in a particular situation, than your reactions are probably more hesitant, reactions a little slower, and that's deadly in football.
And as far as the effects of a physicality and maturity deficit on the bench in 2006, Tulane is scheduled to face three of the more physical football teams in the SEC in Auburn, LSU and Mississippi State. And considering the league as a whole, the SEC is noted for it's physical play.
And the thing about freshmen is that they lack consistency. They'll get it right a few times and the coaches think, that's it, he's got it. And then they hear the same call and they don't have it right. This leads to missed assignments, big plays, touchdowns, and usually losses.
There's a specific reason for defensive cooordinator Eric Schuman planning to deploy so much youth in 2006, the reason being attrition in two key recruiting classes.
If the heart of a team is the players from the three oldest classes, then the absence of a significant number - roughly two-thirds - of the defensive signees from the second and third oldest recruiting classes, the 2003 and 2004 classes, represents a dagger in the heart of the Tulane defense.
Tulane's last two classes, the ones signed in the springs of 2005 and 2006, seem at this point to be solid groups, but the two classes prior to those are weak. Not because the players signed were in general untalented, but because of the 25 of the defensive signees in the 2003 and 2004 classes, 16 of those signees are no longer around on the eve of the 2006 season.
Of the 2004 recruiting class, seven of the signed defensive players have left the program prior to the beginning of the 2006 season. That class included 23 players, 13 of them on the defensive side of the ball.
There are presently six defensive contributors from this class remaining on the roster. That number include team co-captain Antonio Harris, a defensive end; cornerback Josh Lumar, defensive tackles Frank Morton and Avery Williams, and defensive ends Julian Shives-Sams and Reggie Scott.
Among the key players from the 2004 class who departed are linebacker Michael Cox, 6-foot-4, 190-pounds, an outstanding athlete and football player who played in 10 games as a true freshman in 2004 and made 14 tackles. Cox would likely have projected as a starter the past two seasons, but left the program after the end of the 2004 season because of personal problems reported to be associated with possible violations of team and university rules. Given the lack of game experience at linebacker, caused partially by Cox's defection, one would assume that he would at least be in the game rotation.
In that 2004 class, Chris Scelfo and his staff took a chance that Ryan Johnson, a 6-5, 280-pound defensive lineman who was a longshot to qualify, would meet NCAA standards. Most recruiters understod that Johnson would not be able to qualify and would have to go the JUCO route. In the event, Johnson qualified and the Green Wave had themselves a player described as a difference maker.
Unfortunately, Johnson did not arrive in New Orleans until the beginning of camp prior to the 2004 season and proved to be neither well-conditioned nor acclimitized. He suffered through pre-season camp and was basically in the doghouse. Johnson did play in the first two games of the 2004 season, and started the second game against Florida A&M, but does not appear in the season statistics as having made a tackle or other defensive play. Johnson did not see action for the remainder of the season and later transferred to S. F. Austin University but he apparently did not remain there long either.
Basing an evaluation on physical and football ability, if Johnson was still at Tulane, he would have to be considered at least as a candidate for the game rotation.
Bewley originally signed as a running back but moved to linebacker in spring 2005.
Cox, Hill, Lowe and McCabe are all from Louisiana. Bewley and Johnson were from Texas, and Coleman was from Georgia.
It's impossible to be certain what role Hill, Lowe, and McCabe would play on the Green Wave defense in 2006 if they were still here, but as third year players they would be at least more physically mature and more experienced, if not more talented, backups than the redshirt freshman and true freshmen that the Green Wave is presently depending upon.
The 2004 recruiting class was the class most affected by negative recruiting by recruiters for other schools arising from the athletics review in the spring of 2003, this may explain why more chances were taken on academically borderline prospects.
To move on, the 2003 recruiting class included 21 signees, 12 of them on the defensive side of the ball, including six defensive linemen, three cornerbacks and three linebackers. From that class, Tulane has lost nine of those defensive signees by the beginning of the 2006 pre-season camp.
The losses from this class on the defensive front are the most damaging. The top prospect, Elijah Robinson, a 6-3, 285-pound, defensive tackle, who like Johnson, is described as a difference maker; who failed to be cleared to receive athletic financial aid by the NCAA Clearinghouse when a semster of an Algebra class that he took after transferring high schools was disallowed because it repeated the work he had taken in the previous semester of that Algebra class, taken at his previous school.
Robinson eventually enrolled at Penn State, played as a freshman for Joe Paterno in 2004, redshirted in 2005, and is expected to be a contributor in 2006.
Tremell Jack, a 6-3 285-pound defensive tackle is another player with great ability who had difficulty qualifying for admission.
Jack played in 17 games over 2 seasons, making 21 tackles. After the 2004 school year, Jack was recuperating from a back injury, attempting to raise his grade point average so that he could remain eligible, and became involved in a disagreement with an assistant coach that led to his being released from his scholarship for disciplinary reasons. Jack is now a starting defensive tackle at Nicholls State University.There is little doubt that, if he were still at Tulane, Jack would at least be a key player in the game rotation.
And just before the 2006 pre-season camp opened, the Green Wave lost two more players from this class who were expected to play key roles because of academic problems. Of the two, defensive tackle Alvin Johnson and defensive end Craig Morris, Johnson will likely remain at Tulane and attempt to graduate but will reportedly have no eligibility remaining after this academic year. Reportedly, Morris will not be allowed to return to school.
Johnson was considered one of the top defensive linemen on the team, but had previously been academically ineligible for the 2004 season.
Johnson, who attended West Jefferson High School, was considered a good student during his prep career.
In 23 games in his playing career Johnson made 54 tackles, including 9.5 tackles for loss, and 4 sacks.
Morris was withheld from spring practice in an effort to help him concentrate on academics but to no avail. Over the past 3 seasons Morris played in 34 games, made 51 tackles, including 15 tackles for loss, and 3 sacks.
Linebacker Kelvin Johnson represents another player from the 2003 class who had difficulty in qualifying and is no longer with the program.
Johnson, who came into the program as a 6-2, 245-pound freshman, originally committed to the Green Wave in December, 2001, while still a high school senior. Johnson was selected to Florida's 6A All-State first team by the Florida Sportswriters Association in 2001, and was also a first team All-Dade County choice that year. Although he signed with Tulane on National Signing Day in 2002, he was not able to qualify in time to enroll for the 2002 season, but raised his test score sufficiently to allow him to meet NCAA and Tulane requirements, and be eligible to report for pre-season practice in 2003. He was an impact player, playing in all 11 games and making 45 tackles as a true freshman.
In the spring of 2002, one national recruiting observer noted that Tulane did not get many players with this kind of physicality, and Johnson was very impressive. In 21 games over 2 seasons for the Green Wave, Kelvin made 62 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, and grabbed an interception.
Kelvin's difficulties began to multiply when he reported to pre-season camp in 2004 badly out of shape and overweight at around 255-pounds. He was in the doghouse, but did see some action that season, especially in goal line situations. When spring practice opened in 2005, Kelvin reported at 274-pounds, was limited to conditioning work, and cut from the team after a week of practice.
Patrick Benford, 6-0 230-pounds came into the program as a true freshman in the 2003 class and quickly nailed a spot at outisde linebacker in the game rotation. As a freshman that fall, Benford played in 12 games, made one start and recorded 37 tackles.
But, like Johnson, Benford reported to pre-season camp in 2004 out of condition and unprepared for the heat of pre-season camp. In consequence he played little in the early going but eventually did play in 8 games, making 4 tackles, mostly on special teams. Benford took the 2005 spring semester off and was expected to re-enroll for the fall but failed to do so. If Benford was still in the program and was able to maintain the productivity he showed as a freshman, he would be a starter or a non-starting defensive mainstay.
The other major defensive player lost from the 2003 recruiting class was cornerback Alton Widemon. An ultra-quick and explosive athlete at 5-10, 175-pounds, Widemon started slow but played in 10 games at corner and nickleback as a true freshman in 2003. Unfortunately, Widemon was homesick and withdrew from the team at the end of the season, later transferring to Baylor.
In his single season at Tulane Alton started 6 games and made 16 tackles and grabbed 1 interception. Always a member of his school's honor roll, Alton plays for the Bears but has not been able to secure a starting job. Alton played in the Bears opener against TCU and made one tackle.
Based on his freshman season, Alton would be a starter at corner, a nickle back, or the top reserve at corner if he were still a Greenie.
C.J. Davis, a 6-1 300-pound defensive tackle enrolled at Tulane in January, 2003 and participated in practice that spring. Davis did not make much of a dent early in 2003 spring practice and then suffered a knee injury that kept him off the field for the final weeks of spring practice. C.J. seemed to have sufficient bulk to be a help, but he badly needed to improve his upper body strength. C.J. left the Tulane program after the 2003 season and transferred to Northwestern State.
After transferring, C.J. played in 2 games for the Demons in 2004 and made 2 tackles but does not appear to be with that program any longer. Interestingly, Davis is listed on the NSU 2004 roster at 270-pounds.
Justin Wade, a 6-3, 290-pound defensive tackle, was also a part of the 2003 recruiting class. As with Davis, Wade did not make much of an impression early in 2003 season and drew a redshirt. Wade appeared to be an improved player in spring 2004 and was expected to challenge for a regular spot in the game rotation but failed to make an impression, playing in only 1 early game for the Wave - a team desparately short of help on the defensive front. Justin did not return to Tulane for the 2005 season.
As we said above, youth is not usually served on defense. In this piece we've taken a quick look at the attrition that has led the Green Wave into it's reliance on youth. The Green Wave could have a pretty good football team this season. The defense could be a pretty good defense, but the plenitude of true freshmen and other younger players without significant game experience is likely to lead the defense down a rocky road. But as you play freshmen, they tend to begin to grow up.
And with the formidable schedule actually seeming a bit easier after a first half packed with three road games against SEC foes, and road games against Houston and UTEP, two of the three top teams in the C-USA West Division, the outlook for the Tulane defense should be brighter in the second half of the season than in the early going. And that should mean improvement in the team's won-loss record.