Tulane co-defensive coordinators Lionel Washington and Jon Sumrall proved their worth in a collaborative effort that produced one of Conference USA’s top units in 2013.
This fall, offensive coordinator Eric Price will have his first fair chance to show what he can do with coach Curtis Johnson’s modified version of the Saints scheme.
He had no shot in 2012, when Tulane ranked 109th out of 120 FBS teams in total offense with linemen who were virtually devoid of college playing experience. He had next to no shot last season, when the Green Wave finished 115th out of 123 teams with another young line and a new quarterback, Nick Montana, who played a large chunk of the season after separating his throwing shoulder.
In year No. 3, Price finally gets a more experienced group of blockers and a starting quarterback familiar with the system, whether it is frontrunner Tanner Lee, a healthy Montana or strong-armed sophomore Devin Powell.
“Eric’s champing at the bit,” Johnson said at Tulane’s media day on Thursday. “We recruited to defense, we did everything toward defense, and he kind of got whatever was left over (in the first two years). We couldn’t really run what we wanted to do. Now the offensive line is bigger and stronger and faster. They’ve played together a year, they know what they are doing, so this will be great.”
Outsiders look at the loss of top running back Orleans Darkwa, along with leading receiver Ryan Grant, and forecast another dark year for the offense. Price sees light at the end of the tunnel because of the high number of returning players and speedy impact newcomers like redshirt freshman running back Sherman Badie and true freshman receivers Teddy Veal and Leondre James.
“The guys that played last year are being pushed by our freshmen on a daily basis in practice,” Price said. “The whole offense is a lot faster than we’ve had in the last two years.”
While the offense has plenty to prove, the task for Washington and Sumrall is retooling what turned into an outstanding defense. Tulane has significant holes to fill from a group that forced 35 turnovers — second most in the nation — while holding teams to 352.1 yards — the 22nd-best total. The Wave lost imposing defensive tackles Julius Warmsley and Chris Davenport and do-everything sacks leader Jordan Batiste, a nickelback who transferred to Southeastern Louisiana when he was dismissed from Tulane.
Knowing who is coaching the replacements, Johnson professed little concern.
“It’s a very good staff — stellar,” he said. “They understand how to use what you got, and whatever we don’t have, we’ll get the next year. If you look at what Lionel is doing schematically, he’s a rising star.”
For the final two games of 2013, Washington and company started six defensive backs as well as 5-foot-8 linebacker Nico Marley against run-dominant teams Rice and Louisiana-Lafayette. Considering his returning talent this year, Washington said he might use a package with five linemen.
In other words, he and Sumrall fit their scheme to their players rather than forcing them to adjust to a set system.
“It’s based on the personnel you have,” Washington said. “Some coaches say, ‘well, this is the way I know it, this is the way I do it’. I’m really different in that sense. It’s all about being able to adjust to the talent you’re working with.”
Still, Washington and Sumrall had few answers in 2012, when Tulane finished 114th in yards allowed with a small, slow defense. No amount of coaching can overcome huge talent deficiencies.
That’s why the Wave is hoping the offense makes a similar leap this fall. For the first time, the coaches believe the right pieces are in place.
“We were probably a little bit more conservative last year because the defense was playing real well and we were struggling in certain areas,” Price said. “We were playing to the game and trying to win the game. This year we’re going to open it up more and play to score.”