August is now in full swing and we can almost hear the sounds of game day. While marching bands and ref whistles may still be a couple weeks out, it’s never too early to start looking ahead at Tulane’s 2018 season. The picture is still fairly murky on what the Green Wave can accomplish this year but what is clear is the club’s ultimate goal: go bowling when December rolls around. The program came up inches short of its first bowl appearance since 2013 last season and will need the help of both veterans and newcomers alike if they are to finally leap that hurdle. Here’s who we expect to see making a difference this fall.
Quarterback: This is one of the few departments in which Tulane doesn’t need to fill a void. Jonathan Banks, the former junior college transfer, will be returning for his senior campaign and looking to follow up a productive 2017 season. A year ago Banks threw for 1,797 yards and 12 touchdowns while rushing for another 592 and seven more scores in his 11 games. To say the dual-threat playmaker will be a crucial part of this Tulane offense is a vast understatement. Both of the quarterbacks Banks surpassed for the starting job last season, Johnathan Brantley and Glen Cuiellette, have transferred from the team.
Wide Receivers: Banks will have some experienced targets to lean on. Talented senior Terren Encalade who led the club in receiving (730) last year returns alongside Darnell Mooney, both of which combined for eight touchdowns in 2017. Encalade could easily be the Wave’s biggest savior on offense this season. Last year he was explosive, averaging almost 19 yards per catch and he will need to duplicate that performance again. Encalade’s role on the team is now even more critical due to the loss of graduate transfer Freddy Canteen. A shoulder injury ended the former Notre Dame wide out’s season before it began. Senior Jabril Clewis could be a difference maker as well. In 2017, he caught 16 passes for 174 yards.
Running Backs: The Green Wave offense took its biggest graduation punch at the running back position. The losses of Dontrell Hilliard and Sherman Badie will leave a hole in the ground game but fret not Wave fans, there appears to be a solution. Texas Tech transfer Corey Dauphine brings with him four-star talent to the Big Easy and although he didn’t see any game time with the squad last season, we fully expect him to help anchor the Green Wave running game this go around. Dauphine will be joined by junior Darius Bradwell. The quarterback-turned-running back rushed for 411 yards and four touchdowns last year. Expect to see heavy doses of this duo coming out of the backfield.
Tight Ends: Tulane’s tight ends remained relatively quiet a year ago, but that’s not to say their presence wasn’t significant. Charles Jones II will be coming back for his senior season. Jones, who hauled in two touchdowns in 2017 and put up 84 yards on 13 receptions, will be joined by Kendall Ardoin. Ardoin had 63 yards on five receptions last year. The two seniors will handle things over the middle for the offense.
Offensive Line: The backs can breathe easy because the majority of the Green Wave offensive line will remain intact for 2018. Starting tackle John Leglue will be holding it down in the trenches yet again for an offensive line who stays virtually unchanged from a season ago.
Secondary: This is where things get a bit more dicey. Tulane lost eight starters on the defensive side of the ball and perhaps no more significant than Parry Nickerson. The first team all-conference cornerback from a year ago racked up 16 interceptions (six last season) and 31 pass deflects in his career in New Orleans. Seniors like safety Roderic Teamer Jr. and cornerback Donnie Lewis Jr. will now be tasked with making Nickerson’s absence in the secondary bearable. Last year the two combined for a pair of interceptions and knocked down 13 passes. Also keep an eye out for sophomore DB Chase Kuerschen. As a freshman Kuerschen was fourth on the team in total tackles (60) and forced two fumbles. This young man will more than likely see some increased playing time.
Linebackers: As they did in the secondary, the Wave also said farewell to a dominant force in the middle of the field. Rae Juan Marbley was a second team all-conference linebacker and tackle factory last year with 97 total but is now gone. Marbley’s absence will be the perfect opportunity for senior Zachery Harris to lead the linebacker corps. Harris is coming off a season in which he accounted for 69 total tackles. He and teammate Lawrence Graham will undoubtedly be key players in this year’s campaign. Graham will be looking for an increased workload as the junior only recorded 12 tackles in 2017.
Defensive Line: The line took some pretty painful hits as well. Ends Luke Jackson and Ade Aruna have both left and quarterbacks around the American are letting out a collective sigh of relief. The duo combined for 11.5 sacks in their last two seasons and the team will now look to yet another senior in Robert Kennedy to be a viable replacement. Kennedy started in the final three games last fall and showed promise with 15 tackles and a sack. Expect Tulane’s defense to utilize the defensive end heavily this year. As far as the interior goes, Patrick Johnson and Peter Woullard should see more game time after only notching a combined 20 tackles last season.
Kicker/Punter: As far as special teams is concerned, the Green Wave seem to be in pretty good shape. Junior Merek Glover will handle field goal duties, a job he was proficient at in his 10 games last year. Glover made eight of nine such kicks along with 32 PATs on 34 tries. Punter Zachary Block will also be back. Last year Block averaged just under 40 yards per punt.
Return Specialists: The departures of both Hilliard and Badie didn’t just impact the offense. The vacancy left by the two on special teams has kicked the gates wide open for sophomore Stephon Huderson to make an impact. Last season Huderson only returned one kick but did so for a sweet 44 yards. Meanwhile Jacob Robertson will most likely field punts for the Wave. Last season the then-freshman returned five punts for 24 yards.
The success or strife of Tulane’s season will hinge largely on what that new-look defense can do. With the offense and special teams all but intact, this group remains the looming question. If Willie Fritz’s defense can weather the departures of several high-talent guys with the group they have now, then there’s a solid chance this could be a breakout season for the Wave. I cannot say for certain that one position on defense looks better or worse than another but I will say the secondary will be tested often. If opposing offenses can find a weakness in that Nickerson-less back end then you can bet top dollar that they’ll exploit it and do so often. I’m not saying the team’s entire 2018 outlook comes down to the DBs but that tier of the defense certainly could be the defining factor in some games. No pressure.