The best part of Monday's spring football practice opener for Tulane may be the opportunity to look forward rather than continuing to reflect on the gut-wrenching end to the 2017 season.
A hangover was unavoidable after the Green Wave's quest for its second bowl game in 15 years ended when a referee marked quarterback Jonathan Banks an inch short of the goal line on the last play of the finale against SMU. That decision was upheld by the replay official even though the television commentators were convinced Banks had scored the winning touchdown.
The controversial 41-38 loss left Tulane 5-7 in coach Willie Fritz' second year and with no reward for significant improvement in its fourth season in the American Athletic Conference.
"It was a tough one. There's no question," Fritz said. "It took us probably a little longer to get over than I would have liked, both coaches and players. But I think we've really done a good job of turning the page and understanding how close we are. It's going to be a dogfight. This is a great league, and we've got maybe a tougher schedule this year than we did last year (nine of the 12 opponents went to bowls). Everybody's got to get a little bit better."
Fritz and his staff started by bringing in Tulane's highest-ranked signing class since Rivals.com began rating them in 2002. Four of those freshmen enrolled in January and will participate in spring drills: defensive tackles Jeffery Johnson and Davon Wright, quarterback Christian Daniels and cornerback Chris Joyce.
Johnson and Wright, touted three-star recruits, filled Tulane's biggest immediate need. With the departure of senior Sean Wilson, the Wave has no proven returning player on the interior of the line.
Fritz loves what he has heard about both of them in offseason workouts.
"Those two guys are only 17 years old, and they are two of our stronger guys," he said. "You're allowed to do so much in the year prior to spring football, just provided you don't have a football op there, so they've done a lot of the drill stuff and they'll start spring ball with a lot of experience and understanding of what we're trying to do. I'm hoping that those guys are indicative of the class we have coming in."
Johnson, in particular, is intriguing. Alabama and other elite Power Five programs recruited him during his junior season at Brookhaven (Mississippi) High, but they shied away from him after a misdiagnosed health condition caused him to gain weight.
"He's a big guy, but the thing about him, for a big guy he's got stamina," Fritz said. "He's able to do the drills that we're doing. Sometimes those big guys slow down and start sucking wind in a couple of minutes. He can go. We did mat drills, and he was going as fast at the end as he was at the beginning."
Another priority in the spring is finding a replacement for linebacker Rae Juan Marbley, Tulane's top tackler and spiritual leader.
Fritz mentioned senior Zach Harris, sophomore Lawrence Graham and Marvin Moody and redshirt freshman K.J. Vault as candidates, praising their speed and athletic ability. He is looking for a group effort to provide what Marbley gave.
"The thing that Rae Juan did a great job of was setting the defense," he said. "He was very vocal and a really smart player. We've got to get guys to be able to do that. The year before everybody relied on Nico (Marley). Last year it was Rae Juan. We've gotta have five or six guys that can do that."
On offense, Fritz stressed the importance of continued improvement for Banks, who became much more comfortable at the end of his first year as an FBS starter after transferring from junior college.
The Wave also has to find a center to replace long-time starter Junior Diaz, who left as a graduate transfer to Florida Atlantic.
As possibilities, Fritz mentioned Miami transfer Hunter Knighton, who started once in Diaz's absence last year, as a candidate along with Dominique Briggs, John Leglue and Corey Dublin, who all started at other spots on the line a year ago.
If that issue gets solved satisfactorily, Fritz is excited about the offense producing at the level he is used to from his other coaching stops. The goal is not to have to worry about an inch on the final play.
"We're much closer," he said. "There were a lot of games where we were able to move the ball, but we didn't do it as consistently as we wanted to. We were searching for our identity during the year offensively, and we kind of found it."
A critical component of spring ball will be the development of true freshman quarterback Christian Daniels and sophomore Dane Ledford, who will return to quarterback after being moved to wide receiver early last season. With the transfers of backups Johnathan Brantley, Khalil McClain and Glen Cuiellette, they are the only two scholarship QBs behind starter Jonathan Banks. One of them will have to be ready in case Banks gets hurt in the fall.
AREA OF STRENGTH
Despite losing four-year stalwart Dontrell Hilliard, Fritz believes Tulane is well stocked at running back. He labeled junior Darius Bradwell "a beast" with the ball in his hands, saying in retrospect Bradwell should have received more touches than his 66 carries (for 411 yards). Corey Dauphine, who sat out as a transfer from Texas Tech, adds tremendous speed. He looked terrific last August before getting hurt. Stephon Huderson did not play much as a freshman (19 carries, 70 yards) but will get a chance to make an impact in the spring.
Fritz said Chase Kuerschen, who was fourth on the team with 60 tackles as a true freshman, would get a look at linebacker. Although he displayed good instincts at safety, opponents took advantage of Kuerschen's lack of speed at times. The Wave will experiment with plenty of combinations in the secondary, giving cornerbacks a shot at safety in an attempt to get more speed in the back end of the defense.