After playing like garbage in its 65-10 loss to Georgia Tech, Tulane has regained its emotional edge the past three weeks with a little trash talk.
Coach Curtis Johnson could not be happier with the transformation. He added extra elements of competition into every practice when the Green Wave (1-2) returned from Atlanta and hopes to see those changes pay off Saturday at Yulman Stadium in the American Athletic Conference opener against Central Florida (0-4).
“I think it’s helped a lot,” he said. “We decided we have to compete against each other more. The Georgia Tech game we didn’t compete, so now every day in practice there are two competition periods, and I really enjoy it. It’s made a total difference.”
The idea was to inject some confidence into a team that looked dead during an 0-2 start against Duke and Georgia Tech, extending its losing streak to five dating to the end of last season and giving it seven defeats by 24 points or more in 12 months.
Instead of letting the depressing results silence their enthusiasm, the coaches insisted the players become noisier at practice.
When a receiver put out alligator arms in a half-hearted attempt to catch a pass near the goal line, defensive end Royce LaFrance hollered, “That’s what happens when you go to your fifth option!” After another receiver dropped a short pass, someone on the sideline yelled, “He has the hands of a snake!”
With all the jawing back and forth, senior safety Darion Monroe said he expended more energy with his mouth than with his legs during one practice, and he was not criticizing his work ethic. Linebacker Nico Marley leads the war of words, too, particularly when the first-team offense faces the No. 1 defense in the daily red zone drill.
Quarterback Tanner Lee has not been shy, either, getting his point across each time the offense scores a touchdown.
“We do a lot of 1s vs. 1s in practice, and it adds to the trash talking,” he said. “Guys are going back and forth, and it keeps the practice enthused. I really like it.”
When wideout Larry Dace caught a touchdown pass in one practice, receivers coach Carter Sheridan ran into the end zone, jumped in the air and did a rump bump with him.
The winning unit of each competition period gets to celebrate, usually with plenty of screaming. The losers have to do push-ups.
“Being competitive in practice will make us more energetic on the field,” nickelback Jarrod Franklin said. “Losing those first two games definitely added fuel to the fire. Going against UCF to begin conference play has us excited. It’s important for us to start fast.”
Tulane finished strong against Maine of the Football Championship Subdivision on Sept. 19, scoring the final 38 points in a 38-7 victory. The outcome would have been even more decisive if Johnson had not emptied the bench in the fourth quarter, when the Wave managed 0 yards of offense.
UCF certainly would have taken that result. While Tulane was hammering Maine, the Knights lost 16-15 to FCS foe Furman on the same day, exhibiting none of the confidence that took them to back-to-back AAC championships in 2013 and 2014.
Furman lost to Coastal Carolina in its opener and barely beat VMI 24-21 last Saturday.
“The one thing you don’t know with players who did not have much confidence is how well they’re going to be ready to play,” Johnson said. “I was just so nervous, praying the whole time before the (Maine) game. I’m telling you (the players) came out and played well. They were excited and showed enthusiasm on the sideline. They looked like a whole different football team.”
UCF will offer a much bigger test of Tulane’s newfound confidence. The Wave, a three-point underdog despite the Knights’ early-season bumbling, will not have the speed and strength mismatches it enjoyed against Maine. The outcome will hinge on execution.
Center Nathan Shienle anticipates another solid effort.
“Everyone was acting like it was the end of the world after two games,” he said. “We have a 12-game season. We still have a ways to go. We got some confidence against Maine and can build on that because we had a good offensive performance and a good defensive performance.”
Since the turn of the century, the Wave is 3-12 in conference openers, but two of the three wins led to its only bowl seasons in 2002 and 2013. All 12 of the defeats signaled a below .500 conference finish.
“It’s very important to start fast and roll into the rest of the season,” Lee said. “We have a lot of teams ahead of us that haven’t lost a game, and they are playing some very good ball.”
Beating UCF would allow Tulane to convert its practice banter into postgame chanting.
“I like what the team’s doing, I like how they are running around, and I like how they are playing,” Johnson said. “I feel as good as you can with a bunch of guys who have not had that much success.”
Lagniappe:UCF quarterback Justin Holman, who fractured his right index finger Sept. 12 against Stanford, was cleared to return this week, but Johnson said he would have Tulane ready for all three quarterbacks the Knights have used. … The temperature Saturday is not supposed to reach 80 degrees, belying the new nickname for Yulman Stadium: “The Oven.” Said Johnson: “We’re trying to make this thing the oven, but it’s not the oven; it’s the cooler.” … Sophomore defensive lineman Sean Wilson will play against UCF but may not start after missing the past two games with a sprained knee. … Running back Lazedrick Thompson (sprained ankle) is questionable.