Let’s go back in time a bit, before COVID-19, Tiktok and every other fresh horror that greets us when we open our eyes every morning.
When Tulane University officially joined the American Athletic Conference in the fall of 2014, any excitement generated by the Green Wave’s arrival probably started and ended with the fact it gave other league fan bases an excuse for a road trip to New Orleans.
This was even after Tulane won 7 games and broke an 11-year bowl drought in 2013 in their last year of Conference USA competition. It became pretty clear in the 2014-15 seasons that the step up in competition wasn’t something then-head coach Curtis Johnson was able to guide the Green Wave program through (please don’t check the 2014 UH-Tulane game result) and the school went a different direction.
Considering Green Wave football had 3 winning seasons in the 21st century, replacing Johnson with a head coach of Willie Fritz’s resume was a coup. I won’t recap Fritz’s entire career like I did in last year’s Tulane preview, but he was quite successful in Division II (Central Missouri), Division 1-FCS (Sam Houston St) and guided Georgia Southern to 17 wins in their first 2 years of Division 1-FBS.
While the Green Wave were a bowl team by this coaching staff’s 3rd year in NOLA, the team wasn’t replicating the explosive, run-first spread option offenses that had been a hallmark of Fritz teams at previous stops and he dismissed offensive coordinator Doug Ruse.
So, the veteran head coach handed the keys of his offense over to Will Hall, a successful smaller head college HC himself (56 wins in 6 years at West Alabama and West Georgia), who spent 2017 as an assistant on Mike Norvell’s staff at Memphis.
Hall didn’t change the identity of the Green Wave offense as a run-first group but injected some much-needed creativity and explosiveness. If Fritz doesn’t nail that hire, I am not sure this team weathers a much tougher 2019 schedule to go bowling back-to-back years for the first time in program history.
I am not going to write about the weight of expectations coming off 2 straight 7-6 seasons, but undeniably Fritz and Green Wave football seem like they’re on the verge of a breakthrough.
The sequel to the coup of getting Will Hall to Tulane in the first place was keeping him after he was a name in the discussion for offensive coordinator openings at some big-name programs.
Hall’s challenge this coming year won’t be installing a new scheme, it’ll be seeing how ready some players who were 2nd or 3rd teamers last year are to fill bigger roles.
Last year’s pass and rush yards leader (2-year starting QB Justin McMillan), top 2 receiving yards leaders (including current Chicago Bear Darnell Mooney) and the top 2 running backs (Corey Dauphine and Darius Bradwell) are gone. Those guys are all big losses, though the Green Wave may be in better shape than you’d think.
McMillan’s backup, senior Keon Howard, started 9 games from 2016-17 at Southern Miss and elected to finish his career about 100 miles southwest in New Orleans. In 4 games in relief of McMillan last year, Howard attempted 18 passes and averaged an impressive (in a limited sample size) 11.6 pass yards/attempt.
What Howard can do as the #1 QB is still a pretty big unknown, but considering no other Tulane QB has any Division 1 experience to speak of I’ll be surprised if he’s not behind center whenever we have football again.
Beyond 2020 the Tulane QB picture is intriguing as Fritz just got the verbal commitment of 4-star 2021 recruit Ty Keyes and I’m sure no small part of that decision was Keyes’ potential ability to immediately win the starting job.
As I mentioned earlier the Green Wave lose an above average running QB in McMillan and their 2 top yardage RBs rom last year. But I am still bullish on the potential of the 2020 Green Wave rushing offense.
Hall’s offense rotated backs as heavily as any non-service academy offense (6 guys had at least 51 carries), meaning guys like junior Amare Jones (371 rush yds, 6.1 yds/carry, 4 TDs), senior Stephon Huderson (291 rush yds, 5.7 yds/carry) and sophomore Cam Carroll (364 rush yds, 4 TDs) are ready to step into bigger roles.
The combination of Huderson and Carroll lost only 17 yards on 123 carries and Jones was 3rd on the team last year in receptions (34) and receiving yards (367). The unknown for me is less about whether the trio of Jones/Huderson/Carroll (plus redshirt frosh Tyjae Spears) can create a dynamic rushing offense and more about whether Howard can take pressure off them with his legs or arm.
Whether or not the Green Wave get out of the 6 to 7-win zone this season will hinge on big improvement from a passing game short on experience, at least for this season. Stylistically this will still be a run-first offense, but even a bright offensive mind like Hall can’t scheme around a less than credible passing attack.
Oklahoma grad transfer Mykel Jones comes back to his home state to finish his collegiate career after amassing 495 receiving yards as a Sooner receiver. Jones may not have ever become a consistent contributor at OU, but for context he was stuck behind arguably the most talented group of receivers in all of college football the last few years.
Junior TE Tyrick James leads all returning receivers in receptions (19) and receiving yards (283) while Stratford High School product senior Jaetavian Toles had 13 receptions and averaged 12.3 yards/reception last year.
I have less confidence in the Green Wave passing attack absorbing their losses from last years team as I am with the rushing offense, but I am not writing them off entirely either.
Going into last season the biggest thing keeping me from being higher on the Green Wave offense was the lack of experience up front. With the caveat that just about every AAC team is an injury or 2 away from a mini-crisis on the offensive line, this is a much more experienced group.
The pass blocking wasn’t great last year (28 sacks allowed) but this group still paved the way for an impressive 243.2 rush yards/game. Not only is this a more experienced group, but in this most unusual of offseasons they won’t have to learn a new scheme.
New Orleans product senior Corey Dublin has started every Green Wave game since his freshman season, starting at center in 2018 and moving over to right guard last season. Junior Joey Claybrooks is the other returning every-game starter, starting the last 4 games of his freshman season and all of last year at right tackle.
There are a number of other experienced guys vying for starting spots, including one-time Virginia grad transfer Ben Knutson who started 6 games at guard last year. Knutson lost his spot to super frosh Sincere Haynesworth for the second half of 2019 and could get it back as Haynesworth seems likely to replace the departed Christian Montano at center.
Granted there was a lot of uncertainty up front for the Green Wave last season, but its not every day you see a true freshman at any level starting on the interior line like Haynesworth did last year.
Duke grad transfer Jaylen Miller briefly protected 1st round draft pick QB Daniel Jones’ blind side in 2018, before a serious ankle injury ended his regular season 3 starts in and he should be in the mix to start at left tackle.
Bottom line, while this offense does have questions to answer I think assuming a precipitous drop off because of who graduated is lazy analysis. The Green Wave are much more experienced up front and were already great at running the football even with a glitchy offensive line last year. Even if Keon Howard isn’t the same dynamic rushing QB that McMillan was, he’s credible enough as a runner and can lean on a surprisingly deep and stable of running backs,
The $64,000 question will remain, probably into the season, is that passing attack.
While the Green Wave offense finally had its breakout year in 2019, the defense had spent most of the prior 3 seasons under this coaching staff carrying the team back towards respectability.
Since Fritz took over in 2016, 5 Green Wave defensive players have been drafted and numerous others ended up on rosters or at least in training camps as undrafted free agents. For where Tulane football has been this century, averaging 1 defensive player a year drafted is a positive indicator.
And with the way this staff has been recruiting and developing players that pace certainly won’t be slowing down. This is one of the AAC’s most experienced defensive lines and certainly in the conversation for most talented.
Senior DE Patrick Johnson arrived at Tulane from Chatanooga as a 2-star recruit whose only other FBS offers came from FIU, FAU and Central Michigan. Even if he doesn’t play a snap in 2020, Johnson will leave Tulane with 2 selections to the All-AAC team and has a good case for preseason AAC defensive player of the year.
Though, a healthy Johnson would go along way to helping what ailed this defense. It was no secret Johnson played hurt last season and saw his sack total drop from 10.5 in 2018 to 4.5 last season, and the Green Wave’s team sack total dropped from 35 to 21.
The ‘Wave will be buoyed (I couldn’t resist) by another returning senior DE: Cameron Sample. While Sample is more of a space eater than a pass rusher, he posted an impressive 27 solo tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss in 2019. Junior DE Davon Wright is also more in the ‘space eater’ mold and played in an unusually high number of games for an underclassmen playing on the line, appearing in all but 1 game from 2018-19.
Junior NT Jeffery Johnson as of the writing of this preview is the highest rated recruit to sign with Fritz at Tulane and has done some encouraging things his first 2 years in Uptown. Johnson started all but 1 game as a true freshman and started 6 games last year. The stats are never going to be gaudy considering Johnson’s role is to occupy blockers and running lanes more than rush the passer, but 56 total tackles in 2 years is quite respectable.
Senior De’Andre Williams started every game of the 2019 season on the interior line, was a team captain and registered 59 total tackles.
With the existing experience I don’t think they’ll necessarily need contributions from incoming freshmen but Tulane inked 2 impressive local defensive linemen: high 3-star recruit Angelo Anderson from local power John Curtis and one-time UH commit Adonis Friloux.
If you take out the Navy game and a terrible performance against Houston, the Tulane run defense allowed a stingy 122 rush yards/game in their other 11 games. Paired with defensive line that returns basically everybody, this should be a tough team to run the ball on.
Senior Marvin Moody who started every game last year and some of 2018, leads all returning linebackers with 34 solo tackles and 56 total.
Junior Nick Anderson played in every game last year, his first of Division 1 football, and could be ready for a bigger role in 2020. Ditto for sophomore Dorian Williams who saw action in 11 games as a true freshman last year.
One newcomer to keep an eye on is Kevin Henry, a grad transfer from Oklahoma State. Henry never cemented himself as a starter, but played a lot on special teams and as a rotation LB for the Cowboys and if he can stay healthy (a big if in his career) could certainly man one of the starting linebacker spots.
The Green Wave secondary last year did pretty well for itself, but probably has the most questions to answer of any defensive position group on this team. Gone are safety PJ Hall, who led the team in pass break ups and was 2nd in tackles, and cornerback Thakarius Keyes who was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs.
Senior Jaylon Monroe started opposite of Keyes in 12 of 13 games last year and had the team’s lone blocked kick. The obvious question is whether Monroe is ready to take the mantle of #1 corner and go against the top receivers of opponents like Memphis, SMU, UCF and Houston this fall.
Of all the returning corners, junior Willie Langham probably has the inside track for the other starting spot but will get pushed by Florida State grad transfer Kyle Meyers, who elected to use his final year of eligibility playing in his hometown. I also wouldn’t count out senior Ajani Kerr, who missed the last 7 games of 2019 with an injury.
Senior safety Chase Kuerschen was one of Fritz’s first recruits here and led the Green Wave in both solo and total tackles, despite missing 2 games.
The picture is kind of murky outside of Kuerschen for the rest of the secondary, but junior Larry Brooks had a team-high 4 interceptions while playing mostly as a reserve including 2 in the Green Wave’s final 2 games of the 2019 season.
Even with a few questions in the defensive backfield, I think this could be the AAC’s best run defense and if the offense figures out their question marks, I don’t think this side of the ball will hold the Green Wave back.
That’s not to say this conference won’t punish the Green Wave if there aren’t satisfactory answers to all the existing defensive questions.
For some reason one of the weird mental associations I have with Tulane football is how they had the country’s best kicker (Cairo Santos) in 2012 when they were an objectively terrible team. I have no natural segue back to the present team, just figured if there was any place to put this it’d be in the special teams section.
Senior kicker Merek Glover doesn’t have the biggest leg (career long FG- 44 yards) but is at least consistent on the shorter stuff, making over 80% of his kicks in his career so far.
Junior punter Ryan Wright has been the Green Wave’s primary punter most of the last 2 seasons and averaged 41.4 yards/punt and had 11 punts go 50+ yards.
The specialists will be taking their kicks from a new long snapper as junior Matt Smith and redshirt freshman Ethan Kudak are the only long snappers on the current Green Wave roster.
Last year’s return game did produce a kick return for a touchdown, from current RB Stephon Huderson, although I expect Amare Jones will be the primary kick returner like he was last year. Jones also averaged a healthy 12.8 yards/return as the Green Wave’s primary punt returner.
Matching Up with the Coogs:
Its easy to forget after the way last year’s Houston/Tulane game ended, how well the Cougars played for about the first 2.5 quarters of that game. The Coogs didn’t grab an unearned lead on the road, they thoroughly manhandled a good Green Wave team at home where they were noticeably better (5-1 home record) last season.
Unfortunately for my psyche, the last 1.5 quarters still count and we’ll never get an answer to the hypothetical of whether D’Eriq King decides to stop playing mid-season if that week 4 game goes differently.
But that game was a demonstration of how effective the Cougar rushing attack could be with a somewhat healthy offensive line and guys like Kyle Porter and Mulbah Car spearheading the attack. I don’t think this Tulane defensive front is going to give up 300+ rushing yards for a 2nd season in a row, but I think the Cougar rush offense against the Green Wave rush defense will be a good match-up.
Conversely, I don’t think there could be any more unknowns when the Green Wave try to pass the ball against the Cougars.
The Holgorsen staff in about 18 months has almost completely turned over the personnel in the secondary, with Damarion Williams having an encouraging first D1 season and promising newcomers like Kelvin Clemmons, Marcus Jones and Art Green coming into the fold. But there are still a lot of guys who haven’t gotten game reps in over a year or will be getting their first D1 game action in 2020.
On the other side of the ball, Tulane returns a backup QB with more meaningful D1 experience than your average backup in Keon Howard, but he can’t lean on an experienced receiver group.
With the usual caveats about not knowing when/if a lot of the coming season will be played, it certainly won’t hurt the Cougars to have almost 2 weeks of rest before playing the Green Wave this time around. If you'll recall, the Coogs were playing their 4th game in 19 days when they traveled to New Orleans last September.
The big question from the Tulane perspective is if they can shake off their road woes, as they’ve gone 3-9 in true road games the last 2 seasons. A slate full of empty stadia might make it a bit easier.
It’ll be a statement game for both teams. Tulane winning at Houston for the first time in 6 years would be a statement and Houston shaking last year’s horrendous finish to beat the Green Wave would signal the program has buried some of the bad juju of 2019.
Let’s hope we all get to see it happen.