Tulane hasn’t come close to a winning record in any of coach Bob Toledo’s previous four seasons, but the Green Wave thinks this year could be different.
First, the university - encouraged by the young developing players on last year’s team, as well as facing the reality of recruiting with a coach with one year left on his contract - extended Toledo’s deal through 2012 after last season.
Then, Toledo and the players suggested as camp was approaching that it’s time to expect Tulane to be more competitive, even after finishing 4-8 overall and 2-6 and last in the Western Division of Conference USA last season.
“We have a real good nucleus coming back,” Toledo said. “The last couple of years, we have played a lot of young players. We are no longer a young, inexperienced football team. Now is the time for us to be a winning team and hopefully go to a bowl game.”
Running back Orleans Darkwa had the most productive season of any freshman running back in school history last season, starting six of the 11 games in which he played and falling just 75 yards short of 1,000 rushing yards. He averaged 5.0 yards per carry and scored 11 touchdowns.
“Orleans is a great running back,” junior quarterback Ryan Griffin said. “He’s a lot of fun to watch and a real playmaker.”
Griffin made strides as a sophomore last season despite playing through several injuries. He completed 59 percent of his passes for 2,371 yards with 14 touchdowns and just eight interceptions.
Griffin’s top target is junior Ryan Grant.
Toledo said he has seen signs of Griffin emerging as a leader as the quarterback organized the team’s summer workouts.
“I’m looking for him to have an excellent year,” Toledo said
The offensive line is experienced in the middle with seniors manning the three interior spots.
The Green Wave’s offensive coaching staff features several changes. Coordinator/quarterbacks coach Dan Dodd resigned to become head coach and athletic director at a high school in his hometown of San Clemente, Calif. Toledo hired former Louisiana-Lafayette coach Rickey Bustle to be his quarterbacks coach.
Offensive line coach Mark Hutson has taken over as running game coordinator, and running backs coach Greg Davis Jr. has taken over as passing game coordinator. Toledo has resumed the play-calling duties after turning them over to Dodd the past two seasons so he could get more involved in other aspects of the team.
“I haven’t done that the last couple of years, and I’ve missed it,” Toledo said. “I love game-planning and scheming and calling plays on Saturdays.”
Tulane’s defense allowed an average of 42.8 points during the last eight games last season, six of which were losses.
The key defenders are ends Dezman Moses (a senior) and Austen Jacks (a junior) and junior middle linebacker Trent Mackey, who was the third-leading tackler in C-USA last season.
The Green Wave returns its kicker, punter and deep snapper but must find a replacement for Casey Robottom, who returned punts as a senior last season.
Griffin accompanied Toledo to the Conference USA Media Day in Memphis, Tenn., and got tired of being asked why this season would be better for the Green Wave.
“The most common question probably was, what makes our team different this year?” Griffin said. “I’m glad I don’t have to answer that anymore. We’re not going to talk about that. We’re going to show why we’re different.”
If Tulane is going to have a breakthrough this season and perhaps even contend for a bowl berth, it’s going to need to stay healthy. It has had a tendency to limp home, losing four of the last five a year ago, seven of its last eight the year before, and its last eight in 2008.
Toledo said the depth is getting better, but the Green Wave plays 13 games without an open week, finishing the season at Hawaii on Nov. 26.