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Three questions which determine if Tulane can repeat as AAC champions in 2023

The Willie Fritz-Michael Pratt head coach-QB combo is back. Tyjae Spears is not. Can the Green Wave run through the AAC again?

NCAA Football: Cotton Bowl-Tulane at Southern California Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

When the preseason AP Poll is released in August, Tulane will likely find its name emblazoned on the heralded 25-team list for the first time in program history. The Green Wave are fresh off a spectacular 12-2 season, accompanied by an AAC championship and a thrilling Cotton Bowl triumph over USC.

Head coach Willie Fritz remained loyal to the program amidst a hectic offseason coaching carousel, and he received commitments for the upcoming season from some of his star players, including quarterback Michael Pratt and center Sincere Haynesworth. In total, eight 2022 All-AAC selections return to the Green Wave roster, comprising of three offensive players, three on defense, and two special teamers. Thus, expectations will be through the roof as Tulane prepares to win back-to-back conference titles in a new-look AAC.

Tulane ran through the AAC with a 7-1 record and only played three conference opponents to within one possession last year — Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF. But all three transition to the Big 12 for the upcoming 2023 season, theoretically easing up Tulane’s schedule.

Perhaps the toughest competition standing in the Green Wave’s path for the conference crown is a new AAC addition in UTSA, when the Roadrunners pay a visit to New Orleans during the final week of the regular season. And Tulane’s toughest road game is likely a Friday night battle at Memphis, but that nationally televised contest transpires directly after a bye week.

The schedule shapes up favorably, as the Green Wave avoid some of the peskier opponents in the AAC, including an SMU squad known for explosive aerial attacks and a Navy triple option scheme which requires plenty of painstaking defensive adjustments in the week leading up.

But with plenty of factors in Tulane’s favor, what uncertainties linger about the 2023 AAC favorites heading into the season? The answer to each of the following three questions could determine whether the Green Wave can rule the league for the second-consecutive year.

What does the backfield look like without Tyjae Spears?

NCAA Football: Southern Methodist at Tulane
Shaadie Clayton-Johnson averaged 5.8 yards per carry last season and is a projected successor to Tyjae Spears in the backfield.
Andrew Wevers-USA TODAY Sports

Running back Tyjae Spears won 2022 AAC Offensive Player of the Year honors after a dominant campaign, but Spears will not be back for 2023 after warranting a third round NFL Draft selection by the Tennessee Titans. Losing an AAC Offensive Player of the Year is never easy, as recent data suggests. Below is a complete list of players to achieve the designation, and how the team’s offense was impacted after the departure:

  • 2021 Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati: team dropped from 11th to 59th in points per game
  • 2020 Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati: returned for 2021
  • 2019 Malcolm Perry, Navy: team dropped from 12th to 122nd in points per game
  • 2018 McKenzie Milton, UCF: team dropped from 1st to 6th in points per game
  • 2017 McKenzie Milton, UCF: returned for 2018
  • 2016 Quinton Flowers, South Florida: returned for 2017
  • 2015 Keenan Reynolds, Navy: team rose from 22nd to 20th in points per game
  • 2014 Shane Carden, ECU: team dropped from 23rd to 76th in points per game
  • 2013 Blake Bortles, UCF: team dropped from 30th to 72nd in points per game

What separates Tyjae Spears from the rest of the pack? He is the first running back to obtain the honor. While running backs traditionally do not have as much impact on an offense as quarterbacks, Spears’ ability to completely take over games for the Green Wave last season was undeniable, and the offense will look considerably different without him.

Spears rushed for 1,581 yards (5th in FBS) and 19 touchdowns (t-3rd in FBS), and only improved as his senior year progressed. The star running back finished his sendoff season with eight consecutive 120+ yard rushing performances, and he delivered trademark showings in each of Tulane’s three most important games of the 21st century. To clinch the AAC title game, he posted 181 yards in a hostile Cincinnati environment. To win the AAC title game, he racked up 199 yards on UCF. And in an MVP performance on the grand stage of the Cotton Bowl, Spears picked apart the USC defense with a season-high 205 yards on 17 carries, complemented with four touchdowns.

Spears mastered the art of the broken tackle and was one of the most explosive running backs in college football last year, as evidenced by his five 30+ yard runs in the AAC Championship Game and Cotton Bowl combined. So what does a post-Spears backfield look like in New Orleans?

Rather than a backfield dominated by one man, as exhibited last December, expect Tulane to launch the 2023 season with more of a running back by committee approach, before potentially settling on a feature back. Besides Spears, only two running backs garnered more than 10 carries last year, and fortunately for the Green Wave, both return to the roster — Shaadie Clayton-Johnson and Iverson Celestine.

Over half of Celestine’s carries in 2022 were distributed in September, and he was an important supporting piece in non-conference play. He totaled 306 rushing yards on 77 carries, earning the most usage in Tulane’s statement road victory over Kansas State with a team-high 14 rushes for 52 yards. Meanwhile, Clayton-Johnson emerged as the secondary back after the month of September subsided. He totaled 333 rushing yards on 57 carries, rattling off a career-best 106-yard performance against Tulsa and a 75-yard showing versus SMU.

Given Clayton-Johnson’s increased usage in November, combined with his impressive 5.8 yards per carry, the 6’1”, 205 pound sophomore is the most likely candidate to headline the depth chart. But there are other options in the form of newcomers. Transfer Shedro Louis operated as a secondary tailback at Liberty last season, tallying 529 yards and eight touchdowns on 122 carries. An established kick returner, Louis works well in open space and could be frequented as a receiving option out of Tulane’s new-look backfield.

Lastly, the Green Wave landed 3-star local recruit Arnold Barnes, who already got a head start with the program as an early enrollee. The true freshman made a splash in spring ball and could find himself as part of the running back rotation while Tulane seeks to find a viable Spears replacement.

But overall, the quartet of Clayton-Johnson, Celestine, Louis, and Barnes are tasked with the mission of keeping a dominant rushing attack afloat without significant drop-off from the previous season. Last year, Tulane boasted a rushing attack which ranked 20th nationally and accumulated 205 yards per game on a 5.1 average. Plenty of those yards were produced by Spears’ open-field magic, but the 2023 running back rotation should have plenty of opportunities to break free thanks to a veteran offensive line.

The trenches return a potential All-American center in Sincere Haynesworth, two additional returning starters in Prince Pines and Rashad Green, an experienced reserve in Josh Remetich, and LSU transfer offensive tackle Cameron Wire, who started 11 games in Baton Rouge. With Two First Team All-AAC selections in paving the path, Tulane should be able to preserve some of its ground success despite a major departure in Spears.

Will the offense shift to a more passing-oriented style?

NCAA Football: American Athletic Conference Championship-Central Florida at Tulane
Michael Pratt delivered a series of dimes in the AAC Championship Game en route to a 394-yard, 4-touchdown performance against the UCF defense.
Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Now here is the follow-up to the prior question. A running back with as much talent as Tyjae Spears isn’t exactly the most replaceable piece, and without his explosive playmaking ability, how will Tulane define its offensive M.O. in 2023?

The Green Wave return a fourth-year starting quarterback in Michael Pratt, who has displayed marked improvement with each season under center. But even with Pratt as an all-conference quarterback, Tulane’s offensive identity was always its ability to dominate on the ground. The Green Wave boasted a top 20 rushing attack, but ranked middle-of-the-road in passing offense, posting roughly 237 yards per game.

Since Spears controlled a significant portion of production, there wasn’t as much pressure on Pratt to deliver 300-yard showings on a weekly basis. He only attempted over 30 passes on four occasions and finished the 2022 season with more showings under 180 yards —mainly due to a lack of attempts because of a successful run game — than games with over 300.

But despite not being the focal point of the offense, Pratt was spectacular — he earned Second Team All-AAC honors in an efficient 3,000-yard season where he completed passes at a 63.6 percent clip. And his touchdown-to-interception ratio was among the best in the country, as only one quarterback with at least 27 touchdown passes tossed fewer interceptions than Pratt’s five (Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker). But now that Spears is gone, how much will Tulane rely on Pratt to bolster the offense in 2023? Does the offense shift to more of an aerial-centric attack with the presence of a reliable quarterback?

Pratt has delivered some masterful passing performances on the biggest stages. In the AAC Championship Game, his arm produced 394 yards and four touchdowns in a 45-point outburst against UCF. The majority of Pratt’s throws in this specific game were quick slants and hitches where he found receivers in one-on-one man coverage, and the receivers made moves to shed their tacklers en route to large pickups. So even if Tulane relies more on the passing attack, it’s more likely the Green Wave’s route profile looks similar to the one it demonstrated in the AAC Championship, rather than expanding the verticality with a series of 20+ yard throws.

A similar route profile was observed in the Cotton Bowl, a game where Pratt completed just 8-of-17 attempts. But those eight completions were monumental, racking up an average exceeding 29 yards. The majority of those throws were slants across the middle or screens to the flats, which gives us a preview of what to expect from the Tulane passing attack in 2023. In summary, the home run plays are often created near the line of scrimmage by putting a defensive back on an island and taking advantage of a missed tackle or a lost step.

As far as Pratt’s options to manufacture these plays, he loses his top two targets from last season in Shae Wyatt and Duece Watts. But Jha’Quan Jackson and Lawrence Keys both proved to be substantial playmakers toward the end of last season, and the pairing should form a solid foundation at the position group. The additions of Louisiana transfer Dontae Fleming and Texas A&M transfer Yulkeith Brown should fortify the depth of the receiving corps. Add tight end Alex Bauman — who scored the game-winning touchdown of the Cotton Bowl — to the mix, and Tulane could redefine itself as one of the AAC’s more stellar passing attacks, if the Green Wave choose to go that route in the post-Tyjae Spears era.

Expect Tulane to seek the return of a potent rushing attack early in the season. But if it cannot succeed to a similar degree, Willie Fritz and his staff can redefine their offensive style with workable personnel in the passing game.

Can run defense sustain success with new linebacking corps?

Louisiana Tech v Clemson
Replacing Dorian Williams and Nick Anderson is no easy task, but two-time All-C-USA linebacker Tyler Grubbs is a worthy candidate to fill one of those voids.
Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Tyjae Spears, Michael Pratt, and the Tulane offense generated significant attention during last year’s dream season, but the Green Wave rolled by opponents with a quality defense as well. The team was especially defensive-driven in the first half of the season, as dominant defense served as the impetus to a 17-10 win over Kansas State, a 27-24 overtime victory at Houston, and a 24-9 throttling of East Carolina.

It was a well-constructed unit, lacking highly exploitable deficiencies. Tulane didn’t produce sacks at a high rate (1.7 per game), but the Green Wave still placed ample pressure on quarterbacks and fielded a stellar secondary which only surrendered 208 yards per game and a 59.8 completion rate. The rush and coverage worked together well enough to form a dangerous combination, and the unit returns Second Team All-AAC defensive linemen Darius Hodges and Patrick Jenkins, as well as First Team All-AAC cornerback Jarius Monroe, which should help keep the pass defense train rolling.

Losing the formidable safety tandem of Macon Clark and Larry Brooks could be daunting, but Tulane reloaded well with established starters Kam Pedescleaux (Louisiana) and AJ Hampton (Northwestern) from the transfer portal.

But the biggest question mark on the defense lies within the linebacking corps. Dorian Williams and Nick Anderson did everything for this defense last year. Williams produced 132 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, five sacks, and played a vital role in pass defense with seven breakups and a pair of interceptions — generating himself a day two draft selection by the Buffalo Bills. Anderson added 113 tackles, 7.0 tackles for loss, and four deflections as a Second Team All-AAC selection. Those two omnipresent linebackers were the backbone of Tulane’s 4-2-5 unit, countering the run with impressive effectiveness while showing versatility against the pass, doubling as excellent blitzers and coverage specialists.

Jesus Machado and Corey Platt Jr. are among the incumbent candidates to step into the vacant roles. Both linebackers were rotating pieces on the defense last year, accruing 40 and 25 tackles, respectively. They’ll need to display the aforementioned versatility Williams and Anderson brought to the table in order to keep the defense running as a well-oiled machine. But Tulane received additional assistance at the position from the transfer portal in Tyler Grubbs, who could thrive as a day one starter. The former Louisiana Tech standout was one of the C-USA’s top linebackers, earning all-conference honors in 2020 and 2021 before an injury-riddled 2022 season concluded his time in Ruston. If Grubbs can return to pre-injury form, that should help Tulane immensely as his run-stopping presence is undeniable, generating a collective 19.5 tackles for loss across his first two seasons with the Bulldogs.

Even though Tulane is losing its two most important defenders in Williams and Anderson, the Green Wave have been in similar situations recently when it comes to replacing top defenders. After the 2020 season, replacing the void left by departing defensive ends Patrick Johnson and Cameron Sample seemed like a tall task, but the Green Wave racked up even more sacks per game in 2021 with a more balanced pass rush leading the charge.

But the underlying factor in Tulane’s defensive performance this fall will be the linebacker play, as it was in 2022. So that suggests breakout seasons are required for Machado and Platt in order to keep the defense strong enough to lock up the AAC crown through 2023.