Five questions as Tulane opens spring football practice _lowres

Advocate file photo by A.J. SISCO -- Tulane cornerbacks Lorenzo Doss, left, and Parry Nickerson knock the ball away from Memphis receiver Adrian Henderson last season. Doss had 15 career interceptions when he declared for the NFL draft this spring. Nickerson had six picks last season and hopes to continue the tradition for the turnover-minded Green Wave.

Coming off a six-interception year in 2014, Tulane sophomore cornerback Parry Nickerson expects to cause even more turnovers as a sophomore. Asked how he could improve in preseason practice, he specifically mentioned working on over-the-back catches with co-defensive coordinator Lionel Washington.

Over-the-back? Nickerson could have mentioned something more conventional like technique or footwork, but he focused on how he needed to become a better ball hawk when he was running downfield rather than facing the quarterback.

That’s Washington’s way. His constant emphasis on takeaways has paid huge dividends for the Green Wave defense the past two seasons.

After finishing second nationally to Houston by forcing 35 turnovers in 2013, Tulane forced 28 in 2014, ranking 13th in takeaways per game.

Only three teams — Houston, TCU and Louisiana Tech — have caused more turnovers since the start of 2013.

“That’s something we practice every day and emphasize from the time we get to meetings in the morning to the time we leave meetings that night,” said Washington, who spent 12 seasons as a secondary coach in the NFL from 1999 to 2010. “We have to create takeaways. It is so important to give our offense another opportunity to score.”

Part of the turnover success is philosophy, and the other part is having natural ability. For the Wave to be among the nation’s takeaway leaders for the third consecutive year, Washington needs to replace cornerback Lorenzo Doss, whose 15 career interceptions ranked second in school history when he declared for the NFL draft after his junior season.

“Doss was one of those kids that comes once in a lifetime, but Parry is very close,” Washington said. “The other guys this year have to keep working at it, but they have real good ball skills.”

Interceptions are only part of the turnover equation. Tulane also has forced 46 fumbles the past two years, recovering 27 of them.

That, too, is by design.

“It’s one of the first drills we do,” Washington said. “We try to pop it up coming from behind or come over the top and rake it out. (The players) get a minus (in the coaches’ grading system) if they run at the football and don’t even make one attempt to get it out.”

Tulane linebacker Eric Thomas knocked the ball loose from Georgia Tech quarterback Justin Thomas on the first play from scrimmage in Yulman Stadium history last September. Defensive end Royce LaFrance grabbed it and ran 10 yards to the Yellow Jackets’ 8, setting up an early touchdown.

LaFrance forced two turnovers later in the year and hopes to master the art of strip sacks this season.

“It’s emphasized a lot,” he said. “We want to get our offense in great field position and put the other team in a sense or urgency.”

The big drawback last year was the defense’s failure to turn those turnovers into instant points. After scoring four touchdowns on interception or fumble returns in 2013, the Wave was shut out in 2014, coming close only on LaFrance’s initial effort.

Tulane returned 19 interceptions for 382 yards two years ago but managed only 86 return yards on 17 pickoffs last season.

“Most of the time, we’re thinking scoop and score or interception and score,” Washington said. “It’s something we’re working on every day.”

Takeaway totals can vary dramatically from year to year, but certain teams always finish near the top. Oregon has ranked among the nation’s top 20 in takeaways for five consecutive years, and TCU had done it three seasons in a row.

Washington, whose defense forced at least one turnover in 19 consecutive games before coming up empty at East Carolina in November, sees no reason Tulane can’t join that lofty company.

“I know that’s the type of team we are going to be, because we have a lot of athletes, even more than last year,” he said. “We are going to be aggressive and strip the ball when the running back is running, and we will get interceptions by disguising our looks and getting great coverage.”

Lagniappe

Tulane’s offense was sharp in a live-tackling, 2-minute drill at the end of Tuesday’s morning workout. Tanner Lee directed a drive that ended in a 6-yard scoring run by Dontrell Hilliard, and Devin Powell finished off his drive with a 14-yard touchdown toss to tight end Sydie London. One caveat: Coach Curtis Johnson rested almost all of the defensive starters after the first two plays. … The Wave held a closed workout at the Saints indoor facility Tuesday afternoon. It was the first two-a-day session of the preseason.