No. 112: Tulane
By Paul Myerberg // Apr 30, 2012
Curtis Johnson was named the 39th head coach in Tulane’s history on Dec. 5, replacing interim coach Mark Huston, who replaced Bob Toledo on Oct. 18. National signing day was on Feb. 2. For Tulane, spring ball kicked off on Feb. 22. That’s not a long time for any new coach to gather information on his team, compile a recruiting class and prepare to implement new schemes on both sides of the ball. Add in the fact that Johnson was tied up with his duties as the New Orleans Saints’ wide receivers coach until Jan. 14, and you wonder just how well he knew this team prior to the start of spring drills. You also wonder how well this team knew Johnson and the new staff by the time spring ball commenced in late February. Better yet, you wonder how well everyone knew everyone else by the time Tulane capped spring ball on March 24.
Conference USA, West
14 (7 offense, 7 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Sept. 1
- Sept. 8
- Sept. 22
- Sept. 29
- Oct. 6
- Oct. 13
- Oct. 20
- Oct. 27
- Nov. 3
- Nov. 10
- Nov. 17
- Nov. 24
Last year’s prediction
Could you blame a Tulane fan for not getting ramped up about the coming season? Why would this year suddenly find Tulane playing inspired football? It shouldn’t, and here’s guessing it won’t: there are some bright spots but far too many question marks, and the roster itself is far too young to expect this year to be the year. Now, when the 60 sophomores, redshirt freshmen and true freshmen have another year under their belts, the Green Wave might be onto something. Here’s guessing Toledo isn’t around when that occurs.
In a nutshell Watching Tulane play football was like watching an obese person try to pull themselves off the couch: not only were you unconvinced that Tulane could get up and moving, but you got the impression that this team was perfectly happy sitting around and collecting dust. While the move didn’t translate into victories, the program did shake off most of the cobwebs when it dismissed Bob Toledo in October. At the time, Tulane was 2-5 on the season and 15-40 overall under Toledo, the former U.C.L.A. coach who was hired in 2007. The last straw was a 44-7 loss at home to UTEP, though the Green Wave had yet to reach rock bottom. That came the next week, when Tulane lost to Memphis. Or three weeks later, when Tulane gave up 73 points to Houston. Or three weeks after that, when a loss to Hawaii gave Tulane a school-record 11 losses.
High point Not that U.A.B. was any good in its own right, but Tulane’s 49-10 destruction of the Blazers on Sept. 17 was one of the strangest results of last season. The win lifted the Green Wave to 2-1, joining a season-opening victory over Southeastern Louisiana; 10 straight losses followed.
Low point Not that Tulane was good in any sense, but losing at home to Memphis marked the program’s lowest point in decades. The Green Wave held the ball for more than 32 minutes, gained 459 yards of total offense and committed only three turnovers yet lost, 33-17, to an awful Memphis team.
Tidbit Tulane’s career winning percentage ranks fourth among the five F.B.S. teams from Louisiana and 103rd overall in the F.B.S., not counting the four teams transitioning into the WAC, Sun Belt and MAC in 2012. L.S.U. is first among teams from the Bayou State, of course, with a winning percentage of 64.7 percent — good for 13th in the nation. Next is Louisiana Tech, at 56.6 percent, 49th nationally. Then comes Louisiana-Lafayette, which comes in 94th nationally at 48.5 percent, followed by the Green Wave. Bringing up the rear is Louisiana-Monroe, which ranks 113th in the F.B.S. with a winning percentage of 43.2 percent.
Tidbit (Louisiana edition) Despite ranking fourth from a historical perspective among Louisiana schools, Tulane has owned three of its four in-state rivals. The Green Wave are a combined 30-4 against Louisiana-Monroe, Louisiana-Lafayette and Louisiana Tech, including a perfect 8-0 mark against the Bulldogs. It’s a different story against L.S.U., as you’d expect — the Tigers hold a 69-22-7 edge — but the bottom didn’t drop out for Tulane until the 1940s. The Green Wave went 13-7-2 against the Tigers from 1917-39.
Former players in the N.F.L.
2 RB Matt Forte (Chicago), OT Troy Kropog (Tennessee).
Arbitrary top five list
Biggest Johnson in the N.F.L.
1. OG Herman Johnson, New York Giants (360 pounds).
2. OG Carl Johnson, New Orleans (353 pounds).
3. OG Mike Johnson, Atlanta (312 pounds).
4. DT Antonio Johnson, Indianapolis (310 pounds).
5. DT Spencer Johnson, Buffalo (306 pounds).
Curtis Johnson (Idaho ’85), entering his first season. Johnson’s ties to Tulane lie in his geographic proximity to the program over the last six years, when he served as the wide receivers coach for the New Orleans Saints. In addition to his professional work in the area, Johnson was born and raised in New Orleans – even if he went all the way to Idaho to play college ball – which, in way, makes his ascension to the top spot at Tulane a homecoming of sorts. While Johnson is now more well known for his stint with the Saints, that was his first foray into the professional coaching ranks. Johnson worked at five F.B.S. programs from 1987-2005, beginning at his alma mater, where he spent the 1987 and 1988 seasons under future California and Washington head coach Keith Gilbertson. After spending five years at San Diego State, from 1989-93, and another year at S.M.U., Johnson rejoined Gilbertson in 1995 for his final season as the head coach in Berkeley. Johnson’s career took off in 1996, when he was hired as the receivers coach at Miami (Fla.), then in its second season under Butch Jones. He remained with the Hurricanes until 2005, helping the program through four different incarnations: the solid start under Davis, the dog days under Davis, the salad days under Larry Coker and the dark days of Coker’s letdown. As an assistant at Miami, Johnson was integral to the program’s move into Louisiana’s recruiting grounds; obviously, his recruiting acumen was part of his appeal to Tulane. Johnson’s largest drawback is his lack of head coaching experience, though again, everyone needs to start somewhere. From day one, he grants Tulane some respectability. Just don’t go penciling the Green Wave in for an immediate turnaround.
Tidbit (coaching edition) Johnson’s offensive coordinator will be former UTEP and Memphis coordinator Eric Price, who knows a thing or two about moving the football in Conference USA – he knows about it, even if his last two teams failed to do it with any consistency. Coaching is in Price’s blood; his father, Mike, is the current UTEP head coach, and his brother, Aaron, is the Miners’ offensive coordinator. Johnson will have co-defensive coordinators: Jon Sumrall, formerly of the University of San Diego, will team up with Lionel Washington, a longtime N.F.L. assistant – and former Tulane defensive back, not to mention a 15-year N.F.L. veteran. The most interesting addition to Johnson’s staff might be quarterbacks coach Mike Neu, whose entire coaching career has come in the Arena Football League.
Players to watch
Tulane’s offense will become more explosive, yes, as well as more aggressive — the two go hand-in-hand, after all. The Green Wave have some nice talent on offense, even if the offense as a whole has played with great inconsistency for the greater part of a decade. How strange would it be to see Tulane average 28 points per game? Let’s see. For starters, the program hasn’t averaged that many points per game over the span of a season since 2003. Secondly, Tulane has scored more than 28 points against an F.B.S. opponent only 10 times since 2007 — or the entirety of Toledo’s stay with the program.
It always seemed as if Tulane was leaning towards an offense-first head coach last winter, when the program was searching for Toledo’s permanent replacement; while not a coordinator, or even a coach who has ever called plays on any level, Johnson is certainly an offense-first coach. Where he specializes, however, is in identifying and utilizing talent at wide receiver, which will come in handy for Tulane in 2012.
No, the Green Wave don’t have terrific, game-breaking talent at wide receiver, nor even a tremendous amount of proven production. But Tulane does have a few underclassmen with promise, such as sophomores Xavier Rush (24 receptions for 338 yards) and Justyn Shackleford (31 for 404). Junior Wilson Van Hooser (36 for 487, both team highs) came on strong over the second half of last season, making 29 of his receptions over the final seven games of the fall.
It wasn’t surprising to see this trio, despite the coaching change, factor into Tulane’s top group at the position. Here’s another great sign for the Green Wave: Ryan Grant, a junior, is back in action after missing all but one game of last season due to a sports hernia. That several players stepped up in Grant’s stead last fall increases Tulane’s depth and options at the position in 2012.
Ryan Griffin is a three-year starter, a proven Conference USA quarterback and Tulane’s unquestioned starter, but beware: Griffin ended last season playing the worst football of his career. What does that mean for Tulane as he prepares for his senior season? Not much, perhaps, though you’d never want your clear starter to end any year on such a low note. From Oct. 15 through Nov. 26 — the final seven games of last season — Griffin tossed seven interceptions against four touchdowns; completed less than 50 percent of his attempts in each of his last three games; cracked the 200-yard mark only twice; and averaged less than 4.5 yards per attempt four times.
Injuries played a role. So did overall inconsistency across the board on offense, beginning with the offensive line and stretching out to the receiver corps, which despite making some gains throughout the fall remained the youngest and least game-tested in Conference USA. With Grant back in the fold and receivers like Van Hooser and Shackelford a year wiser, Griffin should end his time in New Orleans with the finest season of his career. However, this prediction hinges on one factor: Griffin needs to hit the ground running in this offense. As a multiple-year starter, Griffin should have the experience and savvy to learn the intricacies of Johnson’s system before September. If Griffin does miss any time, Tulane will turn the offense over to redshirt freshman Leon Blouin, who had a nice spring game.
Then there’s junior running back Orleans Darkwa: the key to the whole deal. Tulane might describe Johnson’s offense as “multiple,” but in reality, the offense should be based in a pro-style system. In essence, as under Toledo, the offense will continue to run through Darkwa, one of Conference USA’s more balanced backs. Though not a game-breaker in the running game, Darkwa is certainly reliable; he rushed for at least 65 yards in eight of Tulane’s last nine games a year ago, and rushed for 924 yards altogether — one fewer than in his freshman season. He added a team-best 37 receptions, including 7 grabs for 112 yards in the loss to Memphis. What Darkwa could use — what Tulane could use — is better offensive line play. More consistency up front is all that’s keeping Darkwa from cracking the 1,000-yard mark.
The defensive line lost three starters who combined for 74 career starts: end Dezman Moses – the team’s most productive linemen last fall – made 22 starts, tackle Cedric Wilson 20 starts and tackle Chris Asumnu, a three-year starter, made 32 starts. While Tulane has some very promising talent lying in the wings, losing this trio does rob the defense of three veteran linemen. In terms of experience, the Green Wave will rely heavily on senior end Austen Jacks, the team’s lone returning starter. While not a star, Jacks is certainly consistent; with several wild cards up front, the Green Wave will take all the consistency they can get.
The real story isn’t Jacks’ return, though that will help Tulane bridge the gap to a nearly brand-new starting defensive front. What’s really intriguing about the Green Wave’s front four are the two sophomores, end Michael Pierce and tackle Julius Warmsley, with all-conference potential. Both played in all 13 games last fall, with Pierce chipping in with 15 tackles and Warmsley, one of the first tackles off the bench, adding 27 tackles (6.0 for loss) and 5.5 sacks – the latter total good for second on the team.
Pierce, a member of the Conference USA all-freshman team, will start at end opposite of Jacks. Warmsley will get the call on the inside alongside another sophomore, Kenny Welcome, who will start at nose tackle. Welcome will be pushed for snaps by redshirt freshman Corey Redwine, the team’s biggest interior linemen. If one of Welcome or Redwine can occupy blockers up front, Warmsley should be given enough space to make plays in the backfield, which he did very well as a redshirt freshman. I know that Tulane lost three senior starters up front; nevertheless, I think this group could step right in and make a seamless transition.
The anchor of the entire defense is senior middle linebacker Trent Mackey, a former Duke transfer whose career has blossomed in Conference USA. A two-time all-conference pick, Mackey has led the Green Wave in tackles in each of his two seasons on campus, finishing second in Conference USA with 145 stops (14.0 for loss) a season ago. Put Mackey in the middle, get him some bodies up front and watch him go to work: if Tulane improves, he’s a leading contender for Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year honors.
What the Green Wave could use, however, is a bit more production at outside linebacker. With Mackey in the middle, it stands to reason that flanking outside linebackers Darryl Farley (69 tackles, 8.0 for loss), Matthew Bailey (33 tackles, 3.5 for loss) and Dominique Robertson (37 tackles, 4.5 for loss) should have more free rein to bring pressure in the backfield. While Farley did a nice job as a disruptor last fall, Tulane should be more aggressive at outside linebacker.
In all, Tulane’s front seven matches up fairly well with the rest of Conference USA. Not great, perhaps, but good enough: Mackey’s a star, Jacks a reliable end, the two sophomores potential all-conference performers and the outside linebackers solid, if not adequately productive. The real issue with this defense is the secondary, which must step up its game to match the strong passing teams on the schedule – Tulsa, the two Louisiana schools, East Carolina and the like.
The Green Wave will rely heavily on two senior starters: cornerback Ryan Travis brings 25 career starts into 2012, while strong safety Shakiel Smith carries a team-high 35 starts into his final season. Smith, who finished third on the team with 68 tackles last fall, has the flexibility to move between free and strong safety, as he did a year ago. Travis (59 tackles, team-best 4 interceptions) earned all-Conference USA honorable mention accolades last season.
Position battle(s) to watch
Offensive line Tulane hasn’t been the lucky beneficiary of solid offensive line play since… when? It’s been some time, it’s safe to say, and as in the recent past, it’s hard to take Tulane’s offensive potential seriously until this front shows itself capable of doing the little things: protecting the quarterback and opening up holes in the running game, for example. This year’s line returns two starters, center Zach Morgan and right tackle Eric Jones, but the three holes left vacant due to graduation loom large. A bigger issue, in fact, may be depth across the entire line, and along the interior in particular. Even if the Green Wave can find three new starters — replacing Harris Howard, Joey Ray and Emmanuel Aluko — what happens if the line suffers any major injuries?
Begin with the two proven linemen in Morgan and Jones, both seniors: Morgan will move to center to replace Ray while Jones remains as Tulane’s strong side tackle. As the Green Wave capped the spring, sophomore Adam Skidmore had stepped into Morgan’s shoes at left guard, where he started 10 games as a junior. Howard, whose 33 career starts led all offensive players at the end of last season, will be replaced by one of two redshirt freshmen, Nate Skold or Arturo Uzdavinis — with Skold the favorite. Junior Rio Mares is penciled in as the starter at right guard. The issue, as noted, is depth. While other linemen should step up in August, junior Mike Henry is listed as the backup at left guard, center and right guard. Unless Henry can exist in triplicate, Tulane needs increased depth. Better yet: Tulane just needs better offensive play. The proof will be in the pudding; until the Green Wave improve in this regard, it’s only natural to expect further struggles.
Game(s) to watch
A bumpy start straightens out as the Green Wave head to November. Getting off on the right foot will be difficult, but if Tulane can scrounge together three wins by the final Saturday of October, this team might be able to squeeze into bowl play. If the Green Wave plan on reaching six wins, the following games are must-haves: Louisiana-Monroe, U.A.B., Rice and Memphis.
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell If you look solely at the big picture, you see a program full of energy and enthusiasm — and don’t sleep on just how important this is to Tulane, which hit rock-bottom midway through last season and remained there, in a rut, through the season-ending loss to Hawaii. This is what Johnson brought to the table: respectability. Above all else, regardless of how the Green Wave fare on the field, this is the story for Tulane heading into 2012. But can Tulane take this newfound energy and turn it into a substantial increase in the win column? While there are things to like on this team, I don’t think we’re going to see a major jump in Johnson’s first season. For one reason, there’s the shift in scheme on each side of the ball; this will slow development, especially on offense. There’s also a difficult schedule, especially in the early going: Tulane could start 0-6, though the Green Wave should beat Louisiana-Monroe at home. While every team hits a learning curve under a first-year head coach, I’m worried about the lack of time this team spent with the new staff before heading to the summer. This will make August key for this team; it’s over this month that the Green Wave need to gel as a group in advance of the tough start to the season. What do I think about the future of Tulane football? With a promising coach and a new stadium on the horizon, the future looks brighter than ever. Even a struggle of a 2012 season doesn’t change that fact.
Dream season With enthusiasm back in vogue, Tulane turns in an eight-win regular season in Johnson’s debut. The win total ties a program-high since 1999.
Nightmare season The year starts painfully slow, thanks to the tough early schedule, and the Green Wave’s lack of depth comes into play after a slew of tough injuries as the team starts Conference USA play. Tulane plays hard, but the numbers simply aren’t there.
In case you were wondering
Where do Tulane fans congregate? There’s Ye Olde Green Wave Forum, which markets itself as the “definitive Tulane talk forum.” I’m not one to argue. Other message boards, along with recruiting coverage, can be found at The Wave Report and Tulane Insider.
Tulane’s all-name nominee WR Wilson Van Hooser.
Through 13 teams 41,990.
Who is No. 111? Tomorrow’s program has allowed less than 27 points per game in only one season since 1999.
Tags: Austen Jacks, Conference USA, Curtis Johnson, Darryl Farley, Eric Jones, Eric Price, Julius Warmsley, Justyn Shackelford, Lionel Washington, Michael Pierce, Orleans Darkwa, Ryan Grant, Ryan Griffin, Ryan Travis, Shakiel Smith, Trent Mackey, Tulane, Wilson Van Hooser, Xavier Rush, Zach Morgan
Leave a Comment