It has been a long time since Tulane’s Eric Price has coached an offense that was anything other than abysmal.
That statement is harsh but true, and here’s another bit of truth: Price, entering his fourth year as the Green Wave’s offensive coordinator under head coach Curtis Johnson, believes the pieces are in place for a dramatic turnaround.
“It has to (happen),” Price said. “It wasn’t like we were trying to do those things here in the past, but we do have more returning guys than we’ve had in the last three years by far. It’s the first year we’ve had the same (starting) quarterback; that’s a big thing in any offense. We’re taking the approach that there are no excuses. We need to produce on game day, and we’ve got to get better.”
Price’s offenses have finished outside the top 100 nationally in yards for all three years of his Tulane tenure, ranking 109th in 2012, 115th in 2013 and 107th in 2014. The Wave has not placed higher than 90th in scoring, bottoming out at 121st out of 125 Football Bowl Subdivision teams last season with a 16.0 average.
His two-year stint as Memphis offensive coordinator before arriving at Tulane provided more of the same: The Tigers were 117th in total offense in 2010 and 116th in 2011.
Price did not survive that stretch, getting fired along with head coach Larry Porter and his entire staff after 2011, but he has received Johnson’s total public support through three tough years at Tulane.
The payoff, they expect, comes now. The Wave returns sophomore quarterback Tanner Lee, four of five starting offensive linemen, a bevy of talented running backs and most of its receivers.
There were legitimate mitigating factors during Price’s first three seasons.
In 2012, Tulane fielded one of the least experienced offensive lines in school history. As a result, the Wave averaged the second-fewest rushing yards (39.6) of any team this century, sabotaging any chance for success despite having current Saints quarterback Ryan Griffin.
In 2013, quarterback Nick Montana injured his throwing shoulder during the fourth game and never really recovered. Plus, Johnson said he shackled the offense in deference to an outstanding defense, playing to win low-scoring games as Tulane finished above .500 for the first time since 2002.
In 2014, a gaggle of newcomers at the skill positions shut down the offense. Lee, a redshirt freshman, threw to five true freshman receivers and handed off to a running back trio with a combined 22 career carries.
“I think you guys should take a shot at me rather than at (Price),” Johnson said. “I wasn’t letting the offense do much. We were so young last year, I don’t think the guys understood what a blitz pickup was. They just thought we were going out there and running a bunch of plays.”
Those freshmen are now sophomores, and with plenty of experience to boot. Price is tinkering with a fast-paced approach designed to put opponents off balance.
“I have a better feel for our personnel,” he said. “It seemed like we had three different teams the past three years, and now we have the same team back. I have an idea of what we can and what we can’t do. We’re going to play more up-tempo, and we’ve cut down the plays. We’re trying to make them play faster and not think as much.”
Price prefers not to think about his job status. While South Florida coach Willie Taggart replaced his offensive and defensive coordinators after the Bulls went 4-8 last year in his second season, Johnson has defended Price at every opportunity.
“As a coach you always have pressure, and you understand that going in.,” Price said. “Your job if you’re on offense is to score points, and if you don’t do that, then everyone is going to hate you and want to get rid of you. You can’t let those things affect how you coach.”
Price looks at an offensive line with three third-year starters — tackle Arturo Uzdavinis, guard Chris Taylor and center Nathan Shienle — and he believes the results can be different. He watches Lee change a play at the line of scrimmage — something he was incapable of doing effectively a year ago — and becomes even more positive.
Running backs Sherman Badie, Lazedrick Thompson and Dontrell Hilliard all had big games in 2014, but Tulane struggled to run consistently because its passing game was nonexistent, allowing defenses to stack the box. Opponents won’t have that luxury if Lee and sophomore receivers Teddy Veal, Terren Encalade, Charles Jones III and Trey Scott learn from their mistakes of a year ago.
Price sees by far the most potential out of his offense since he was coaching at UTEP under his father, Mike Price, from 2004-07.
The Miners never finished lower than 42nd in total offense or 35th in scoring in that span. Similar numbers at Tulane would quiet the critics.
“Potentially, we could be good,” Price said. “They’ve done a good job of just staying confident and believing in what we’re doing. Those guys aren’t turning their backs on me at all and they’re not second-guessing me, so it’s all coming together in that respect.”