Although coach Curtis Johnson criticized Tulane’s tackling and ability to stop the run after the last two scrimmages of spring practice, he admitted it was a form of tough love.

As spring drills wrapped up this past weekend, he saw the defense as the Green Wave’s potential savior.

“If we’re going to win, the defense will carry us this year,” he said. “This is the most important year for them.”

With seven starters returning along with several key reserves, it is easy to see the foundation for Johnson’s optimism. It also is easy to understand his concern.

Breaking in several new starters, Tulane allowed 387.8 yards and 5.65 yards per play in 2014 after yielding 352.1 yards and 4.92 yards per play in 2013, dropping outside the top 50 from No. 22 nationally in total defense. Even more significantly, opponents averaged a full yard per carry more last season (4.2) than two years ago (3.2). Duke, Rutgers, Cincinnati and East Carolina all gained more than 400 yards after the Wave held its last six opponents in 2013 under 350.

Not coincidentally, Tulane slipped to 3-9 from 7-6.

“We could have done a lot better,” rising junior linebacker Nico Marley said. “We missed some tackles and were too inconsistent. We had some great games and some bad games. Disappointed is not the word, but we were definitely not satisfied at all either.”

After 15 practices in four weeks during the spring, Marley was encouraged.

“I feel real good about where we are right now,” he said. “The young guys did a great job picking up the defense and the older guys are doing a great job helping the young guys know where they are supposed to be and improving their game.”

The first-team defense appeared set at nine spots by the end of the spring, with a close competition at two others.

Junior Tanzel Smart, a full-time starter last year, and sophomore Sean Wilson, who started the last seven games, return at tackle.

Marley is entering his third year as a starting weakside linebacker, and redshirt sophomore Jarrod Franklin, who missed 2014 with torn knee ligaments, is the first-team nickelback.

Three-year starter Darion Monroe is the free safety, with junior Leonard Davis taking over for 2013 and 2014 tackles leader Sam Scofield at the other starting safety.

Sophomore Parry Nickerson is entrenched at one cornerback spot, and Richard Allen practiced with the first unit all spring in place of the departed Lorenzo Doss at the other corner.

Senior Royce LaFrance will reclaim a starting spot at defensive end after missing the spring for academic reasons. In his absence, sophomores Ade Aruna and Darren Williams received reps with the first unit in a competition to replace Tyler Gilbert.

Junior Eric Thomas practiced with the first unit at middle linebacker but will face stiff competition from Edward Williams, who started eight games a year ago, along with sophomore Rae Juan Marbley.

“The progress has been great this spring,” co-defensive coordinator Lionel Washington said. “We have guys like Nico (Marley) and Darion Monroe and guys on the front line and the linebackers doing a great job. They understand the defense a lot better, they are playing faster and playing with a greater understanding of what we need.”

Marley, who has made 149 tackles through two seasons, singled out the defensive linemen for the most improvement. He believes the Wave, which missed 2013 stalwarts Julius Warmsley and Chris Davenport last year, will be in good hands next fall.

“Tanzel Smart is an animal,” he said. “He’s a beast, and Sean’s also a beast. Then we have Ade Aruna, and he’s the truth. He’s one of the best athletes I’ve ever seen.”

Johnson said Wilson’s absence due to a knee injury he sustained on the second play of Tulane’s first spring scrimmage affected the defense’s performance the rest of the way. With spring practice over, his concern rests more with the second unit than the first.

“We just have to create the depth,” Johnson said. “There a lot of guys on the second unit who have to pick it up.”

Good spring

The next coach coming off a losing season who labels spring practice a disappointment will be the first, and Johnson is no exception. With the Wave looking to rebound from a 3-9 record, he raved about his fourth team.

“This has been the best spring since I’ve been here by far,” he said. “Their athleticism is so much better. They are learning how to practice. They are doing what we ask them to do.”

After Saturday’s practice, he reiterated what he said about sophomore quarterback Tanner Lee and the offense at the spring game a week earlier. Tulane ranked fifth-to-last in the nation in scoring in 2014 and tied for 92nd in turnovers with 25.

“You look at last year at this time, and Tanner was throwing pick after pick,” Johnson said. “I didn’t see one pick today. We also had a lot of penalties, but they seem like they know what they are doing now. They are getting up to the line and running the offense. It’s good. I’m very happy.”

Lagniappe

Spring drills ended five days before the official start of spring, but Johnson said he liked the early schedule because it allowed players to concentrate on midterm exams and the rest of the academic semester. … Johnson said Wilson’s knee injury was not serious. He practiced in the last two weeks of drills but was held out of contact as a precaution. Johnson added the Green Wave had no significant injuries. … Aruna and offensive tackle Arturo Uzdavinis went to the ground fighting during Saturday’s practice, and an angry Johnson reacted the same way he did last fall when Smart and former tackle Sean Donnelly wrestled each other. He made Aruna and Uzdavinis hold hands and walk around the side of the field at Yulman Stadium a few times before allowing them to return.