A slew of mistakes sank Tulane’s football fortunes from start to finish last season. A year older and wiser, the Green Wave believes the mistake this time would be to assume those errors will happen again.
With redshirt freshman quarterback Tanner Lee directing a huddle that included as many as two freshman running backs, two freshman tight ends and three freshman wide receivers, the Wave ranked in a tie for 106th nationally in turnovers per game (2.1) and 108th in penalties per game (7.5).
That kiddie corps has not become grizzled veterans quite yet, but the experience they gained could prove invaluable as they try to double their victory total of three from 2014, or win even more.
At the very least, they don’t expect to sabotage their own drives.
“If we can take out half the mistakes we made last year, I think we make a bowl game,” Lee said at media day Monday afternoon. “When you eliminate mistakes and capitalize on your opponents’ mistakes, you typically win the game.”
Two years ago on media day, Tulane coach Curtis Johnson predicted a bowl trip, even though almost no outside projections had the Wave reaching .500. Last year, Tulane’s first in the American Athletic Conference, he shied away from any prediction.
The 2013 Johnson is back. He preached positivism Monday despite a front-loaded schedule that features seven bowl-eligible teams from 2014 in the first eight games, including Atlantic Coast Conference opponents Duke and Georgia Tech in the opening two weeks.
“I don’t know if it’s reasonable or not, but I’d be very disappointed if we don’t get to a bowl game this year,” he said. “This is a tough schedule, I know, but we have the athleticism. We just have to cut down on all these mistakes and committing silly penalties and understand the game plan. If we do that, we can definitely get to a bowl.”
The mistakes went past the obvious ones like Lee’s five interceptions that were brought back for touchdownsj or then-freshman Teddy Veal’s muffed punt that Cincinnati recovered in the end zone, or the blocked punt that Georgia Tech returned to the 1-yard line. On just about every series, young players forgot where they were supposed to go, causing all sorts of complications.
“A year ago, I don’t think they understood what a blitz pickup was,” Johnson said. “They were just playing football. They just thought we were going out there and running a bunch of plays. And Tanner is doing a much better job of (identifying) the blitz and telling the backs to step up and block that guy or take the edge off. He’s doing things a starting quarterback should do.”
A quick refresher on Tulane’s ultra-reliance on freshmen last season:
Lee started 10 times and threw 336 of Tulane’s 443 passes last season.
Of the Wave’s 413 rushing attempts, 258 came from freshmen.
Freshmen accounted for exactly two-thirds of Tulane’s 240 receptions.
The growing pains were inevitable. Monday, Johnson said he already had noticed a huge difference between last year and this August.
“I can actually have a conversation about football with these young guys,” he said. “It’s a pleasant surprise just to be able to talk football with them. They’re not talking about the little game they’re playing on their computers.”
If the sophomore skill guys become savvier, the Wave could be in good shape, because the rest of the team is experienced. Four starting offensive linemen who have combined for 77 starts are back.
Six starters return on defense, and a seventh, nickelback Jarrod Franklin, would have started last season if he had not been sidelined by torn knee ligaments.
The group includes free safety Darion Monroe, a three-year starter; linebacker Nico Marley, a two-year starter; cornerback Parry Nickerson (six interceptions); touted defensive tackle Tanzel Smart; and defensive end Royce LaFrance, last season’s sacks leader.
The group is reminiscent of 2013, when Tulane’s defense ranked 22nd nationally in yards allowed and carried the Wave to its New Orleans Bowl bid.
“This is our breakout year,” Franklin said. “We don’t have any more excuses. We’re not young anymore, and we have plenty of experience. We just have to make it happen. I think our defense can be just as good as it was two years ago.”
The Wave practiced in shorts Monday morning under sweltering conditions at Yulman Stadium. Johnson described it as one of the two hottest practices in his four-year tenure. … The first two-a-day session is Tuesday, with a workout in full pads in the morning and a second practice at the Saints indoor facility during the afternoon.