Devon Walker, who suffered a fractured cervical spine when Tulane played at Tulsa two years ago, will return to the scene of his injury for the first time Thursday when the Green Wave faces the Golden Hurricane.
Walker, a former walk-on who started at free safety, was paralyzed from the neck down in a collision with a teammate while trying to make a tackle at the end of the first half. Paramedics administered CPR on the field before Walker was taken to a Tulsa hospital, starting a long recovery process.
“He asked me (if he could) come to the game,” coach Curtis Johnson said Monday on the AAC coaches’ teleconference. “He wanted to return to the field. He wanted to really thank the people of Tulsa. They were very instrumental in saving his life.”
Walker spent nearly two weeks in a Tulsa hospital before moving to a spine rehab facility in Atlanta. He returned to New Orleans in December 2012. After nearly a year of rehabilitation, he returned to classes at Tulane and graduated in May with a degree in cell and molecular biology.
He will travel with the team when it flies to Tulsa on Wednesday.
“It will be emotional, but it will be satisfying,” Johnson said. “He has shown so much courage.”
Turnaround for Tulsa?
Last year at this time, Tulsa was the defending Conference USA champion and a unanimous pick by that league’s coaches to win the West Division.
One epic collapse later, the Golden Hurricane was picked last in the American Athletic Conference by reporters attending media day in Newport, Rhode Island. Perceptions change quickly in sports. Tulsa, which plummeted to 3-9 from 11-3, will have its first chance to prove 2013 was an aberration rather than the new reality when Tulane visits Thursday.
“We just did not respond to the adversity that we were presented with,” fourth-year coach Bill Blankenship said. “Every season, you have to understand you are going to have adversity. We were a young team, and that led to a perfect storm. When we lost guys, we couldn’t overcome it.”
Injured quarterback Cody Green missed the Golden Hurricane’s 14-7 loss to Tulane — its first defeat to the Green Wave in nine years of Conference USA play — but that was one of the few close games.
The descent started immediately with a 34-7 loss at Bowling Green in the opening game. UTSA beat Tulsa 34-15. East Carolina won 58-24. North Texas won 42-10.
After finishing 10th in total offense and defense in 12-team C-USA, Tulsa needs to improve everywhere, but Blankenship singled out sophomore quarterback Dane Evans. With the exit of speedy running back Trey Watts (1,329 yards, 11 touchdowns in 2013), the load will fall on Evans’ shoulders.
He was not ready when he replaced Green a year ago, completing a woeful 43.1 percent of his passes with 10 interceptions and four touchdowns while starting five games.
“This is a young man that certainly underachieved a year ago,” Blankenship said. “We put him in a tough situation. The offense wasn’t necessarily suited for him. We’ve tried to do a better job coming into this season of what are the things Dane does well. He’s able to distribute the ball. Cody was 6-5, 240 and a downhill runner. That’s not Dane (6-1, 215). He’s not going to be a guy we design a lot of quarterback runs for.”
Blankenship inherited a winning program from his predecessor, Todd Graham. His first two years fit the pattern, with the Golden Hurricane going 7-1 in Conference USA. After last season’s slide, though, more attention has been paid to Blankenship’s background. His four years as a Graham assistant before his promotion were his only ones outside of high school coaching.
“We’ve been very demanding and have high expectations,” he said. “There’s a real earnest excitement to move into the new season and re-establish ourselves and have a good year.”
Tulane redshirt freshman Tanner Lee will have plenty of company as a young quarterback in the AAC.
Ten of the league’s 11 teams will have freshman or sophomore starters, with East Carolina’s Shane Carden, a senior, the lone exception. It’s quite a contrast to last season, when UCF’s Blake Bortles and Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater were chosen in the first round of the NFL draft.
UCF coach George O’Leary tabbed redshirt freshman Pete DiNovo as Bortles’ replacement. No pressure there: The Knights are coming off a 12-1 season and Fiesta Bowl upset of Baylor.
“We have enough players back in all areas for him to manage the game,” O’Leary said. “Pete did the best job of taking the play from the sideline to the huddle to the execution and really being the best quarterback back there.”
A long way away
Tulane’s Johnson and Cincinnati’s Tommy Tuberville both gave their players the day off Monday for the start of classes. The similarity ends there.
While Tulane faces Tulsa on Thursday, Cincinnati will be the last team in the country to play its opener — waiting until Sept. 12 against Toledo.
“Heck, we don’t play for almost a month, so I don’t have a lot to talk about,” Tuberville said. “We don’t have to worry about anything but getting off to a great start in the classroom.”
Good rule change
Most AAC coaches support the targeting rule the NCAA put in last year, calling for an immediate ejection of anyone who launched his body or used his elbow or forearms to target the head of a defenseless player. The idea is to prevent serious injuries.
The coaches are even happier the NCAA has tweaked one part of the rule. Last year, all ejections for targeting went to the replay booth for verification, but while the replay official could overrule the ejection, the 15-yard penalty still had to be marked off.
This year, the penalty can be overturned, too.
“It’s a good rule,” O’Leary said.