Tulane week in the last 5 years has become kind of a ‘canary in the coal mine’ of how unhappy the Houston Cougar fan base is about the current football season.
Tony Levine’s dismissal was about far more than a drab 31-24 Homecoming loss to Tulane where Greg Ward Jr threw 4 interceptions. But that game was the final indignity of a season chock full of them.
Fast forward 3 years later and Major Applewhite, despite being a 1st year head coach, was already becoming a divisive figure in Cougardom before a 20-17 loss in New Orleans to the Green Wave. Applewhite’s quick dismissal about 14 months later wasn’t because of any one loss, but that loss was indicative of his inability to get both sides of the ball figured out at the same time.
Willie Fritz has been steadily building a Green Wave program that can be competitive in the AAC, something Tulane decidedly wasn’t the last couple years of Curtis Johnson. After finishing 3-9 in each of Johnson’s last 2 seasons, Fritz guided the Green Wave to 4, 5 and then last year 6 wins and eventually a 7th win from their first bowl appearance in 6 years.
You could argue Tulane was unlucky not to be bowl eligible in 2017 after a controversial end of game call (and review of the call) ruled they’d fumbled when it very much appeared they’d scored the game winning touchdown against SMU.
But this was also a team that needed a last-minute touchdown and 2-point conversion against a woeful Navy team to even get bowl eligible last year. So, while Fritz has raised the bar for football in Uptown, there’s room for improvement.
Maybe the most interesting thing is this Tulane program hasn’t exactly looked like the teams Fritz fielded at previous stops.
The Green Wave Offense:
There’s no guarantee if you are reading this that you are familiar with the Green Wave’s head coach: the aforementioned Fritz. So, here’s a quick summary of his lengthy career as a head coach.
Fritz began his head coaching career at Blinn College in 1993 after a decade’s worth of high school coaching and being an assistant in DII and JuCO football. He won 2 JuCO national championships at a Blinn program that won 5 games the previous 3 years and moved on to Division II Central Missouri in 1997. Fritz led the Mules to their first DII playoff berth in program history and won 97 games over 13 seasons before moving to Sam Houston State in 2010.
In his 2nd season at SHSU (2011) Fritz led the Bearkats to a 14-0 start before losing to North Dakota State in the FCS championship game. He led the ‘Kats back to the FCS championship game in 2012 but lost to NDSU again.
After taking SHSU to 3 straight FCS playoffs, he left for the challenge of Georgia Southern, a longtime FCS power that was making the jump up to FBS. In their first season of FBS football (2014) he led GSU to a 9-3 record and went 8-0 in Sun Belt conference play. He followed that up with an 8-4 season where GSU got their first ever bowl game invite.
Dating back to when he was at Sam Houston, Fritz effectively used a run-first spread attack that featured a lot of shotgun formation and sweeps to absurdly quick athletes lined up out wide. At a GSU program enamored with the Triple Option offense, Fritz was able to satisfy the natives with a more shotgun-heavy spread option offense. Since he’s gotten to New Orleans, Fritz hasn’t exactly figured out what he wants his offense to do. This is why Fritz brought in Will Hall to be the Green Wave’s new OC.
Hall was most recently associate head coach and tight ends coach at Memphis and prior to that was head coach at Division II West Georgia from 2011-16 (with a stop as OC at UL-Lafayette in between). Hall won 56 games and made 4 playoff appearances with largely very prolific offenses. It’s still very much guesswork, but I expect Hall will use tempo a bit more and could use the QB in the run game more than average.
Quarterback play has been a large part of the problem, as the now graduated Jonathan Banks never developed adequately as a passer, despite on paper seeming like the perfect Fritz spread option QB. Senior Justin McMillan, an LSU grad transfer who joined the team last fall, eventually won the starting job over Banks but was only marginally more effective.McMillan passed for 1,304 yards but completed only 51.5 percent of his passes. It sticks out in my mind how poorly he fared against a Houston defense that was horrendous by that point later in the season. McMilan did rush for 315 non-sack yards and 5 TDs in his part of a season as a starter, so he has promise there.
The most interesting competition will come from junior Keon Howard, a Southern Miss transfer who started 9 games in 2016-17 for the Eagles. Howard threw for 1,199 yards and 8 TDs (5 INTs) in 7 starts in 2017. At worst, he represents probably the most experienced backup QB Tulane has had in many years.
If you are looking for reasons to be optimistic about the Green Wave offense taking a step forward, they return their top 3 running backs and some interesting talent at receiver. The Green Wave’s most frequently used back last year was senior Darius Bradwell who led the team in rush yards (1,174), carries (201) and rush TDs (11).
Maybe the most intriguing athlete on the Tulane offense is senior Corey Dauphine, a one-time 4-star recruit who began his career at Texas Tech. Dauphine was incredibly explosive and finished the year with 8 rushes of 30+ yards and finishing 2nd in most rushing categories. But he also struggled in the 2nd half of the season with poor performances against SMU, ECU, Navy and even Houston.
This receiving corps also returns its best weapon from a year ago: senior Darnell Mooney, who had 993 receiving yards, 8 TDs and averaged over 20 yards per reception. Mooney was named 2nd team All-AAC and I think what makes his numbers even more impressive is he had a modest 57% catch rate. Improved QB play and an improved catch rate could lead to Mooney being one of the league’s best receivers.
The Wave bring in an interesting receiver grad transfer, Jalen McCleskey from Oklahoma State. The Covington, LA native had 1,865 receiving yards and 17 TDs in his OSU career and should start immediately in his final collegiate season. After Mooney and McCleskey the next most experienced receiver had 11 receptions last year: junior Jaetavian Toles. I’ll be curious if the new Tulane offense uses the running backs as receivers more often, as the last offense rarely did.
Fixing the line will be job #1 for Hall and his new O Line coach Cody Kennedy, who coached under Hall at West Georgia. I think you can trace a lot of the inconsistency of Tulane’s offense last year to uneven play from the 'big uglies' up front. In fact, 'uneven' might be kind as they allowed 35 sacks as compared to only 300 team pass attempts.
Even more bad news: 3 regular starters from last year’s O Line have graduated. Junior Corey Dublin has started every game of the first 2 years of his career, including 13 starts at center last year. The only other lineman to start more than 4 games was senior Keyshawn McLeod, who started 9 games at right tackle, though sophomore Joey Claybrook started the last 4 games of 2018.
The only other player with starting experience at Tulane on the line is senior Tyler Johnson, who started 4 games at left tackle last year and has 12 career starts.
Fritz and his staff certainly identified the need to improve in this area and brought in 2 grad transfers: Christian Montano, a 3-year starter and All-Ivy League selection at Brown, and Ben Knutson a massive 6-foot 9 career backup from Virginia.
I am still not exactly sure how successful this new look Tulane offense will be, but they brought in a new, well-qualified OC and return a lot of the best contributors. So, they’re at least pushing some of the right buttons, so to speak.
The Green Wave Defense:
Counter to the narrative of Fritz being an offensive wizard, his success at Tulane so far has been primarily due to contributions from the defense. Their strategy last year was simple, recklessly attack and hope to get burned less often than they created a negative play.
And it worked enough (e.g. Tulane had 41 team sacks in ’18) that despite playing almost entirely freshmen and sophomores up front the Green Wave had a good run defense. Last year the Green Wave had 4 players named 2nd team All-AAC.
The bad news? 3 of those 4 players have graduated, leaving only junior Patrick Johnson, a 12-game starter last year at defensive end.
Johnson had 10.5 sacks, 16 TFLs (both team-bests last year) and 34 solo tackles as a true sophomore and should be on the short list for pre-season AAC defensive player of the year. The Green Wave return all 4 of their regular starters from last year, including junior DE Cameron Sample (40 total tackles, 6 TFLs, 4 sacks) and junior DT De’Andre Williams (37 total tackles, 3.5 TFLs, 2 sacks).
They also brought in yet another Ivy League grad transfer, Mike Hinton, who started 28 games at defensive tackle and was named All-Ivy League last year for Columbia.
But the most exciting player in the long term on the defense may be sophomore nose Jeffery Johnson who started all 13 games as a true freshman last year and had 29 total tackles. Johnson was a high 3 star with an offer list chock full of SEC and Power 5 schools. As important as anything though, he proved himself capable of starting on a good defense at a position where players rarely start before their 3rd year of college football. Sophomore Alfred Thomas played less than Johnson but is another high 3-star interior D lineman with a promising future who saw action as a true freshman.
Since Fritz has took over, the Wave defense has played with a 4-2-5 alignment with 2 linebackers. Unfortunately, they lost All-AAC linebacker and team tackles leader Zachery Harris to graduation. But they do return junior Marvin Moody (64 total tackles, 5 TFL) and senior Lawrence Graham (59 total tackles, 8 TFL, 4.5 sacks) who both have starting experience.
The secondary loses their 2 best players from a year ago: Donnie Lewis Jr and Rod Teamer Jr, who are now with the Cleveland Browns and Los Angeles Chargers respectively. Senior free safety PJ Hall started 8 games last year and leads all returning defensive backs with 45 total tackles (33 solo) to go along with 1 interception. Junior strong safety Chase Kuerschen started 11 games in his first 2 seasons and seems in line to start with the graduation of Teamer Jr.
At cornerback, Senior Thakarius Keyes started 10 of 11 games opposite of Lewis last year and was just behind Hall with 32 solo tackles. Senior Will Harper started 9 games at the Nickel back position last year and had 33 total tackles and an interception. Finally, junior Jaylon Monroe and sophomore Willie Langham both played in every game last year as cornerbacks and should push for even more playing time.
I won’t just write off the fact that the Green Wave lost 3 all-conference performers, but they have so much returning depth in the areas where they did lose guys. I think I am most impressed by the fact that they started an entirely freshman/sophomore defensive line and had a solid run defense.
If they step take a step back in 2019, I don't think it'll be a big one.
The Green Wave Special Teams:
Last year the Green Wave were ranked 35th in Bill Connelly’s Special Teams S&P+ rating, which is a good advanced stats endorsement. Additional good news is that basically every player that made that ranking possible returns from last year.
The sole placekicker from last year, junior Merek Glover, went 10 for 13 on field goals including a reliable 8 of 9 on attempts inside of 40 yards.
The primary punter last year was sophomore Ryan Wright who had a solid 18 of his 45 punts fair caught and a 44-yard punt average (39 net) as a true freshman.
In the return game sophomore Amare Jones, a backup running back up, averaged a healthy 27.9 yards per kick return. Jones also split punt return duties with junior backup receiver Jacob Robertson Jr, but was far more effective with a 7.5-yard return average..
And last but certainly not least, senior Geron Eatherly has been the Green Wave’s go-to long snapper since 2016 and will finish his reliable collegiate career this fall.
The Season Outlook:
This will be Willie Fritz’s best Tulane team. I don’t like speaking in absolutes generally, but I feel very comfortable making that kind of statement.
I am not sure this will translate to a dramatic change in the wins and losses, however. Tulane’s non-conference schedule is brutal with roadies to Auburn and Army and an opening week game against a resurgent FIU program. The Green Wave also have UCF and Houston on their home schedule and have to go on the road for SMU, Navy and Temple. Basically, Tulane can be a better team that last year and still go 6-6 in the regular season again.
At worst I think the Green Wave on defense will be a reasonable facsimile of what they were in 2018. They might be a little better against the run and a little worse against the pass, but they’ll attack relentlessly and probably be in the top half of AAC defenses. The offense is where I start to have questions.
They made a good hire in Will Hall who could get more out of this group of offensive players than his predecessor. But they were bad last year in the area you can least afford for an offense to be bad: the offensive line. It’s kind of a ‘nowhere to go but up situation’ but if they don’t improve then this will be a below average offense once again.
Matching Up with Houston:
The fact that this game is in week 4 as opposed to week 10 or 11 changes how I think about this match up. This game will only be the 3rd time this group of Cougar players takes the field against an FBS opponent with this new coaching staff, and there will still be growing pains.
Even with lots of unknown I expect the new UH defense will give up more big plays than average. I have tried to get rid of my negative biases from watching the 2018 Tulane offense struggle to do anything against the worst UH defense of my lifetime.
Tulane will probably break a few long plays because most teams that face this Cougar defense will benefit in that way from their ultra-aggressive opponent. The key to Tulane’s success will be whether they can move the ball with any kind of efficiency, something they didn't do at all in 2018.
I think the Cougar offense will match up well, especially considering the relative inexperience of the Green Wave secondary. When D’Eriq King was playing last year the Coogs were on pace to score 60+ but unfortunately instead saw King’s season end on a fluky non-contact injury.
This game will be a good early season litmus test for two AAC teams with big expectations of 2019.