With only three senior starters overall and a gaggle of underclassmen still dominating the offensive skill positions, Tulane appears to be a year away from reaching its potential.
Still, fourth-year coach Curtis Johnson is not interested in lowering expectations. Coming off a disappointing 3-9 debut season in the American Athletic Conference, he wants an immediate return to what happened in 2013, when the Green Wave posted its first winning record (7-6) and bowl appearance (New Orleans) since 2002.
“I would be very disappointed if we don’t get to a bowl game,” Johnson said. “Our schedule is very tough, but if these young kids do what they are supposed to do, I definitely think we can get to a bowl game. They were very motivated this summer. There’s always great motivation when you don’t reach your goals.”
To make that jump, the Wave needs dramatic improvement from the passing game and special teams.
Tulane finished 122nd out of 125 FBS teams in passing efficiency last year, with then-redshirt freshman Tanner Lee throwing more interceptions (14) than touchdowns (12), including five pickoffs returned for scores. Five of his top six targets were freshmen, making his task even more difficult.
All of those young guys are back, so the learning curve will not be as steep this fall as Tulane faces a schedule in which seven of the first eight games are against opponents that were bowl-eligible last season (combined record: 61-30).
“It was big to get that year of experience for everyone,” said Lee, who still has a firm grip on the starting job entering his sophomore year. “When we got back in the summer, we said, ‘Well, that’s not going to cut it.’ We have a lot of work to do. We have to make some strides.”
Tulane finished dead last in special teams according to Phil Steele’s complicated rankings formula. He has not revealed his methodology, but no one who watched the Wave would disagree.
Kicker Andrew DiRocco set the tone when he missed a 21-yard field goal that would have given Tulane a three-point lead on Tulsa in the last two minutes of regulation in the season opener. The Wave went 8-for-16 on field goals for the year. Among other issues, it finished second-to-last nationally in kickoff return average, 110th in net punting, 111th in punt returns, had two kicks blocked, a high punt snap that sailed out the back of the end zone for a safety and a muffed punt that was recovered for a touchdown.
In response, Johnson named Doug Lichtenberger special teams coordinator after using a group approach in 2014. If Lichtenberger cannot get a reliable place-kicking operation — erratic snaps were a problem, too — any other improvements Tulane makes may not matter.
After three days of preseason camp, Johnson labeled walk-on senior kicker Trevor Simms the frontrunner because of his strong leg, ahead of DiRocco and freshman Zach Block. Simms handled kickoffs last year and produced 15 touchbacks in 34 attempts, but he missed badly on his only field goal attempt.
“When he kicks it, it just jumps off his foot,” Johnson said. “I like the sound of his kicks.”
Johnson likes the look of his defense, too, even with the absence of projected starting strong safety Leonard Davis and former starting middle linebacker Edward Williams, who both will redshirt this season because they were not on track to graduate.
Six starters return, plus nickelback Jarrod Franklin, who would have started in 2014 if he had not torn an ACL the previous spring. The list 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 2014 sacks leader Royce LaFrance at defensive end.
All of them are potential All-AAC performers, with Johnson praising the mercurial LaFrance’s focus and dedication entering his final season.
“I feel much better about the defense than I’ve ever felt,” Monroe said. “Our athleticism has really increased. I don’t know if we’re ready to win every game, but we’ll be much better.”
They just need some assistance from the offense. Tulane scored more than 14 points only once in its last eight games a year ago, but four starting offensive linemen return along with the three-headed backfield of redshirt sophomore Sherman Badie, junior Lazedrick Thompson and sophomore Dontrell Hilliard. All three of them had at least one 100-yard rushing performance last season as they, too, learned on the job.
Still, the Wave needs a functional passing game to keep opponents from keying on the runners. After finishing below 100th nationally in total yards for each of Johnson’s three years, Tulane could rise dramatically with a solid year from Lee and his receivers.
Sophomore wideout Teddy Veal (40 catches, 381 yards) tops the list, but the running backs and sophomore tight ends Charles Jones and Trey Scott figure to have prominent roles, too.
“This is the first year we’ve had the same quarterback back, and we have more returning guys than we’ve had in the last three years by far,” offensive coordinator Eric Price said. “We’re taking the approach that there are no excuses.”