Top five storylines
1. Can Tulane overcome familiar foes in an unfamiliar place?
Tulane’s move to the American Athletic Conference is a significant leap for the Green Wave’s stature, but its schedule features plenty of former Conference USA peers. Starting with the season opener at Tulsa on Aug. 28, Tulane matches up against five opponents with whom it shared a league within the past two years, including Central Florida, East Carolina, Memphis and Houston. Despite the familiarity, the boost in schedule strength is noteworthy. Tulane produced one of the nation’s best turnarounds in 2013 but did it against a watered-down C-USA. Coach Curtis Johnson has publicly acknowledged the stiffened competition and is using it to grab his team’s attention on day one of camp.
2. What can Tulane do with home-field advantage?
For the first time in modern history, there’s a ticket demand for Tulane football. Even in the Green Wave’s best years at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and Tulane Stadium, tickets in the massive venues were readily available. A move into the snug confines of Yulman Stadium (which contains fewer than 25,000 seats) should significantly change the atmosphere of home games. With less than 3,000 season tickets remaining to be sold, according to Athletic Director Rick Dickson, the momentum for Tulane football is a strong pull. Members of the coaching staff said a full stadium should help the team’s energy, and Johnson is hoping to unlock that passion quickly.
3. Does coaching continuity translate to success?
Johnson never hid the importance his staff placed on the Green Wave’s 2013 turnaround as Tulane snapped an 11-year postseason drought. Maybe it’s because Johnson was a wide receivers coach for 27 years in seven different locations. But it’s a clear priority for him to recognize his staff in nearly every public news conference, and his respect is obvious. It’s also mutual. With the exception of quarterbacks coach Mike Neu, who accepted the same position for the Saints, Johnson’s entire staff returns for a third season. Several players pointed out the importance of the staff’s cohesion during spring practice and can hit the field in earnest without having to learn any new terminology, regardless of position.
4. Can the Wave deflect the pressure of winning?
Last August, the message from Johnson was about changing the image of Tulane football. In the next four months, Tulane transformed into one of the best defenses in the country and was a few plays away from competing for the C-USA championship. Now Johnson needs to make sure Tulane doesn’t lose its edge after getting a taste of success. He has kept most position battles wide open, and just about every place on the field (with the exception of the secondary) is in jeopardy of having the depth chart flipped over.
5. Can Doss deliver after a super successful summer?
The honors were plentiful for cornerback Lorenzo Doss this summer. The junior was named to the preseason watch list for the Nagurski Award, Thorpe Award and Bednarik Award while being among the 50 players to watch in 2014 by the Walter Camp Foundation. His 12 career interceptions, including seven as a sophomore, raised expectations to the stratosphere. Not only is Tulane relying on him as a shut-down cornerback, but fans expect to see game-changing plays like the multiple pick-sixes he had last season. All eyes will be on Doss when camp opens, but the New Orleans native has repeatedly said he’s unconcerned with external pressures or preseason hype. But the increased attention could pay dividends. A repeat performance of 2013 will likely slate him as a first-round NFL pick and could have Doss pondering a decision about foregoing his final year by season’s end.
Four things Tulane is looking forward to
1. Playing in Yulman Stadium
The days of Tulane playing in a cavernous, empty Mercedes-Benz Superdome nearly devoid of noise are over. Whether Yulman Stadium will be loud remains to be seen, but the atmosphere on campus definitely will be more electric than playing downtown. Georgia Tech on Sept. 6 will be the first game on campus in 40 years.
2. C-USA in the rearview mirror
Tulane needed to get out of the sinking ship known as Conference USA in the worst way. The Wave wanted no part of a conference where the “marquee” teams included Florida Atlantic, Middle Tennessee and Texas-San Antonio. The American Athletic Confernce’s terrific TV package and recognizable teams (Cincinnati, UCF, Houston, SMU) are a huge upgrade.
3. Finding out if the Price is right
Er, make that whether the Prices are right. Aaron Price, younger brother of offensive coordinator Eric Price, joined the staff as quarterbacks coach at the start of spring drills. The Wave ranked 109th and 115th in total offense during Eric Price’s first two years, but he had no chance with an inexperience offensive line in 2012 and shaky QB play in 2013. This is the first time it will be a fair fight.
4. No more losing mentality
During Tulane’s 10-year stretch of losing seasons, at the first sign of adversity, the Wave imploded. The free-falls ended last year after starting QB Nick Montana got hurt. Playing with a bum throwing shoulder, he led a game-winning drive vs. North Texas (final record: 9-4). Untested backup Devin Powell led back-to-back victories against East Carolina (10-3) and Tulsa to guarantee bowl eligibility.
With four-year starter Orleans Darkwa gone, the race is wide open, particularly considering the uncertain academic status of senior Rob Kelley. Redshirt freshman Sherman Badie, a speedy John Curtis product, ended spring drills atop the depth chart. The other candidates are sophomore Lazedrick Thompson, junior Josh Rounds, senior Dante Butler and freshman Dontrell Hilliard. Aside from Kelley, whose eligibility is unclear, their combined career rushing total is 642 yards.
The story here is similar to at running back, with Tulane needing to replace two-time 1,000-yard receiver Ryan Grant. Senior Justyn Shackleford (1,235 career yards) has shown enough to lock down one spot, but everything else is up for grabs. Senior Xavier Rush is coming off a down year (17 catches). Redshirt sophomore Devon Breaux looked great in practice but caught just six passes last season. Redshirt sophomore Kedrick Banks (19 catches) is another possibility.
Needing to replace stalwart starting tackles Julius Warmsley and Chris Davenport, the Wave has a likely rotation of four guys. The question is who ends up starting. Tanzel Smart, coming off a promising freshman year, and Calvin Thomas, who was redshirted with a foot injury, are close at one spot. Corey Redwine and Kenny Welcome are competing at the nose. Regardless of who wins the two jobs, all of them will play and have huge shoes to fill (literally, in Davenport’s case).
The sophomore candidates to replace Zach Davis in the middle could not be more different. Eric Thomas, a 5-foot-10, 227-pound plugger from John Curtis, ended the spring ahead of heralded 2013 recruit Edward Williams (6-3, 230), who struggled with injuries and the pace of college football as a true freshman. Williams looks the part, but he will have to outplay Thomas in practice to win the job.
Newcomers to watch
DE Daren Williams
One of the hardest signees for Tulane to land, Williams initially committed to the Green Wave, then flipped to Kansas State before winding up back with Tulane on signing day. His physicality and 235-pound frame off the edge should pay immediate dividends on the defensive line.
C Raul Diaz
Diaz surprised teammates with his physicality in spring practice. The early enrollee grabbed the attention of Tulane’s coaching staff — including the ones on the defensive side — by overcoming his size limitations to move piles and anchor the heart of the offensive line. He’ll compete for a starting spot at a position littered with inexperience.
LB Rae Juan Marbley
The Destrehan product entered the summer at 215 pounds and possesses the physicality and speed to compete for a starting position in one of Tulane’s two to-be-determined linebacker spots. The question is how quickly he can mentally grasp the series of exotic blitz schemes employed by co-defensive coordinator Lionel Washington.
Monday: First practice
Thursday: Media day
Saturday: First day of two-a-days
Aug. 28: Season opener at Tulsa
Aug. 28, at Tulsa, 7 p.m., CBS Sports Network
Sept. 6, Georgia Tech, 3 p.m., ESPNews
Sept. 13, Southeastern Louisiana, 7 p.m.
Sept. 20, at Duke, TBA
Sept. 27, at Rutgers, TBA
Oct. 11, Connecticut, TBA
Oct. 18, at Central Florida, TBA
Oct. 31, Cincinnati, 7 p.m., ESPN2 or ESPNU
Nov. 8, at Houston, TBA
Nov. 15, Memphis, TBA
Nov. 22, at East Carolina, TBA
Dec. 6, Temple, TBA