Given the difficult circumstances in which he started, new Tulane football coach Willie Fritz liked his first signing class.
Two days after he took the job Dec. 14, the recruiting dead period began, preventing any face-to-face contact until Jan. 14. While he was evaluating players for the first week and a half, some of his assistants were preparing Georgia Southern, Fritz’s old team, for its Dec. 24 bowl victory against Bowling Green.
The Green Wave, coming off back-to-back 3-9 seasons under former coach Curtis Johnson, still finished with a balanced, 22-player class, including four prospects who were among ESPN’s top 100 at their position.
“Most coaches will tell you they don’t care about stars or lists, and normally those are the coaches who sign guys who weren’t on any list and don’t have any stars,” Fritz said Wednesday. “We’re certainly proud that a lot of these guys were recruited by ‘Power Five’ schools and a lot of other schools in the American Conference.”
The players rated the highest by ESPN were Baton Rouge University High defensive back/wide receiver Tre Jackson, the No. 20 athlete; P.J. Hall of Hoover (Alabama), the No. 43 cornerback; Coby Neenan of Dothan (Alabama) Northview, the No. 56 kicker; and Tallahassee (Florida) Godby’s Darius Bradwell, the No. 54 dual-threat quarterback.
Individual plaudits will have to wait. Unlike Johnson, who raved about specific players on past signing days, Fritz preferred to address the accomplishments of the class as a group. Each player will have to prove his worthiness once he gets to campus.
Balance in the class was critical to Fritz. Of the 22 players, 11 are slated to began on defense, 10 on offense and one on special teams. The holes that hurt some of Johnson’s recruiting classes aren’t there — the Wave signed at least one player at every position but defensive tackle and tight end, neither a position of need — a year after coming up empty at quarterback, defensive end, linebacker and tight end.
With only four returning scholarship receivers after repeated shortages there under Johnson, Fritz signed four, including Jacob Robertson of College Park (Georgia) Woodward Academy, a three-star recruit whom Rivals.com rated the best member of the class.
With only two returning scholarship quarterbacks after Tanner Lee’s transfer to Nebraska, Fritz signed two. Bradwell, who is on campus after enrolling in January, will compete with holdovers Glen Cuiellette and Devin Powell in spring drills. Johnathan Brantley of Houston C.E. King will arrive in the fall.
Tulane also signed six defensive backs, another area Fritz labeled important.
“Our plans are to play everybody right away,” he said. “This is something that was attractive to the student-athletes we were talking to. We are not planning on redshirting anyone. It will be all hands on deck. We want to have 85 scholarship athletes representing the Green Wave next season on the field.”
Jackson, a one-time commitment to Florida and then South Carolina who chose Tulane over Kansas State earlier this week, could line up at a variety of spots. The Wave lists him as a DB/WR/KR.
“I told him about a week or two ago, ‘Tre, I’m not sure where to play you,’ ” Fritz said. “He gave me the good answer that I want to hear: ‘Coach, I’m going to do whatever you need me to do, wherever you think will help the team out.’ ”
Tulane had a couple of late disappointments.
On Wednesday morning, heralded Clay-Chalkville (Alabama) quarterback Ty Pigrome picked Maryland over Tulane and Virginia Tech. Pigrome, a three-star recruit according to Rivals.com and 247Sports.com, threw for 3,080 yards and 44 touchdowns while rushing for 1,349 yards and 18 scores as Clay-Chalkville advanced to the Class 6A state championship game. Pigrome also accounted for 61 touchdowns and led his team to the state title as a junior, losing only one start in his career.
On Tuesday, Lawrence Edwards of Port Orange (Florida) Spruce Creek decommitted before signing with Georgia Southern, leaving Tulane with two offensive linemen in the class: 6-foot-4, 270-pound Tyler Johnson of Stone Mountain (Georgia) Stephenson and 6-4, 293-pound Phabion Woodard of Indianola (Mississippi) Gentry.
The Wave returns only nine scholarship linemen — 10 if Jason Stewart moves back from defensive tackle — and the blockers are coming off an abysmal year.
“We would have liked to have signed one or two more offensive linemen,” Fritz said. “But one of the things I’ve been telling the coaches throughout this process is, ‘Let’s don’t reach for guys. Let’s don’t try to find a guy just to fill a number or a need.’ We want guys that are good in the classroom and bona fide Division I players.”
Three members of Tulane’s 17-player signing class in 2015 did not qualify academically, further depleting a group that was not ranked among the nation’s top 100 by Rivals.com. Fritz expects no academic issues with this group, which is ranked in the 80s by Rivlas.com and 247Sports.com.
“We feel very confident about that,” he said. “A big priority for us is to find guys that can handle the academic riches here. One of the things we sell is a world-class education.”
On that note, Fritz played down the possibility of supplementing the class with junior-college additions or transfers.
“There’s a possibility of a graduate transfer coming here maybe, but it would have to be the right fit for him, and it would definitely have to be the right fit for us,” he said. “We’re not going to reach for anybody. We’re in this for the long haul.”