Coach Willie Fritz has had success in year two at every stop in his career, he has a better team, with personnel more in line with his philosophies. Is 2017 about laying a foundation or is Tulane a rouge wave about to crash through the AAC?
An offense returning eight starters plus the addition of dual-threat QB Jonathan Banks will be complemented by a defense returning nine starters from a year ago. The Green Wave has experience, but will the schedule, a daunting affair comprising of eight bowl teams including the initial five contests, be too much for the Green Wave to overcome?
Last season’s offense was a tale of two offenses; the running game was efficient, churning out over 228 yards per game and rolling to the second highest rushing total in school history. The passing game however, was abysmal, finishing last in the nation in passing efficiency. Coach Willie Fritz made an immediate change, signing three quarterbacks in the 2017 signing class, all of whom fit his pistol-based spread option attack. One of those signees, JUCO transfer Jonathan Banks, has earned the starting job while the other two, true freshmen Khalil McClain and Dayne Ledford, will battle to be the third option behind sophomore Jonathan Brantley. All are strong armed, dynamic runners capable of scoring with their feet as well as their arms.
Those arms will be throwing to a bevy of young, but experienced wide receivers. Tulane began last year with a ton of question marks and youth at the receiver position, now offensive coordinator Doug Ruse has experienced answers with a year of experience. Led by junior Terren Encalde, the starting trio Encalade, sophomore Darnell Mooney and redshirt freshman Jacob Robertson are just beginning to scratch the surface of their potential. Those three will be reinforced by JUCO transfer, junior Jabril Clewis, junior Devin “Jet” Glenn, along with sophomores D.J. Owens and Chris Johnson. Clewis, Johnson and Glenn run extremely well and can put vertical pressure on the defense.
Coach Fritz also signed three true freshmen receivers, Jaetavian Toles, Travis Tucker and Kevin Ledee, all of which are between 6”1’ and 6”5’. Expect one of them to contribute this season, especially in the red zone.
At tight end the Green Wave returns two athletes with starting experience in redshirt juniors Charles Jones II and Kendall Ardion, both of whom are excellent receivers. To improve depth at the position the coaches signed true freshman Will Wallace and moved Andrew Hicks over from wide receiver. This group has shown prowess catching the ball, but it's their blocking which will most impact the Green Wave offense, where they will pave the way for a talented set of runners.
At the running back position Tulane returns last season’s leading rusher in senior Dontrell Hilliard as well as fellow senior Sherman Badie. The twosome will be joined in the backfield by converted quarterback sophomore Darius Bradwell and true freshman Stephon Huderson. There will be plenty of carries to go around and the Tulane coaches are optimistic that this season could be a historic one running the football. But much of that success will hinge upon the growth and maturation of the Green Wave offensive line.
The Tulane offensive line remains a work in progress, but early reports out of fall camp are quite positive. The return of center Junior Diaz from injury, the move of John Leglue over to tackle, the infusion of talent in the form of transfers Dominique Briggs and Hunter Knighton in addition to the return of freshmen who started a combined 15 games last season in Leeward Brown and Tyler Johnson is the roux of a great offensive line gumbo. Add to that mix redshirt sophomore Keshawn McCloud and a trio of true freshman in Luke Jackel , Corey Dublin and Joey Claybrook and you have the possibility to field the best offensive line Green Wave fans have seen in the last decade. Currently the starters appear to be Leglue at left tackle, Briggs and the surprising freshman Dublin at guards with Diaz at center and McCloud at right tackle. And where last season, Diaz’s season-ending injury revealed paper-thin depth, line coach Alex Atkins can now turn to Johnson or Knighton at tackle and Brown at guard, a luxury compared to 2016.
The Green Wave offense is trending up, the running backs are explosive, the wide receivers young and talented, but the offense will only improve if the line can pass protect and Jonathan Banks can operate the triple option efficiently.
The Green Wave defense returns nine starters from last season’s group that finished the season ranked 31st in the nation in total defense. Even with the loss of All-AAC performers Tanzel Smart and Nico Marley the Tulane defense could improve on last year’s ranking.
It all starts up front and Tulane returns three starters in seniors Ade Aruna, Sean Wilson and Quinlan Carroll. The new face up front is redshirt senior Eldrick Washington, a three year letterman, who logged a start vs Navy and managed 20 tackles in 2016. Tulane’s wealth of depth and experience at end is demonstrated by reserves Peter Woullard and Robert Kennedy who have also started games, as well as converted linebacker Larry Bryant. Defensive tackle depth is a bit thinner, behind Washington and Wilson is redshirt junior Braynon Edwards and redshirt freshman DeAndre Williams.
Behind the formidable defensive line Tulane plays two linebackers in their 4-2-5 base. The Green Wave has a couple of physical specimens in senior Rae Juan Marbley and redshirt junior Zachery Harris. These two backers are prototypical physical specimens who are veterans of the AAC wars. Backing up the starters are redshirt senior Luke Jackson and sophomore Lawrence Graham. Among a bevy of true freshmen of the 2017 singing class, KJ Vault in particular has caught the attention of the coaching staff with his physical play during camp.
Tulane’s secondary may be the best position group on the team, stocked with experienced, talented veterans. At the corners are returning All-AAC performer redshirt senior Parry Nickerson and redshirt junior Donnie Lewis. The third corner is a battle between redshirt freshman Tre Jackson and true freshman Willie Langham. Sophomore Thakarius Keyes and true freshman Jaylon Monroe will also see time in the pass-happy AAC. At the nickel position is Jarrod Franklin, who started 12 games at free safety last season, while backing him up is redshirt freshman PJ Hall. Hall, a jack-of-all-trades, started two games last season at corner and can also play safety. Speaking of safeties, Tulane returns one of the best safeties in the AAC with physical strong safety junior Roderick Teamer, while free safety will be manned by junior Taris Shenall, a starter at nickel last season.
The Green Wave defenders, now in their second season in coach Jack Curtis’ defense, look to be much improved in their reads, alignment and understanding of the scheme. The defensive line has the potential to be the best in the AAC with Aruna and Wilson leading the way, providing a strong pass rush and Washington plugging the middle. The linebackers are capable of making plays from sideline to sideline, while the secondary led by Nickerson, Teamer and Franklin will make it very difficult to pass against Tulane.
Junior Zac Block, which is an unusual name for a punter, returns to punt for Tulane while the place kicking duties fall to redshirt freshman Coby Neenan. Kick returns will be handled by a committee of Sherman Badie, Dontrell Hillard and Devin Glenn. If Neenan, who has shown good consistency in fall camp, can kick a high percentage from 40 yards in the Green Wave may pick up a win or two that might have gotten away last season.
The Tulane coaching staff has seen improvement in every phase of the game, a team that returns seventeen starters and has improved at nearly every position.
A team that dropped three games last season by seven points or less is on the cusp of turning the corner. This team will be better than last year’s version of the Green Wave, but will we see the difference in the win total?