Young Tulane faces another road challenge at Big Ten’s Rutgers _lowres

Advocate Photo by VERONICA DOMINACH -- Tulane coach, Curtis Johnson looks on during the Georgia Tech game Sept. 6 at Yulman Stadium.

Here’s how Advocate contributing writers Guerry Smith and Scott Kushner graded Tulane’s football team following a 3-9 season:


It’s a position that’s overly scrutinized, because offenses are often too reliant on it. For Tulane, it never received enough reliable performances from the position to truly lean on its quarterback play. Freshman Tanner Lee started 10 games, and senior Nick Montana filled in for a pair when Lee injured his shoulder. Neither found much offensive rhythm, and by season’s end it appeared the passing game had regressed to complete stagnation. Tulane scored just one touchdown in its final three games and finished the year averaging just 5.4 yards per passing attempt while throwing 17 interceptions. Lee showed his arm and mind are talented to put it together on occasion, but there is no way to justify calling his first season anything above mediocre.


While Tulane’s offense ground to a halt in the final few weeks, the Green Wave’s potential in the backfield may have actually grown. Redshirt freshman Sherman Badie and sophomore Lazedrick Thompson were joined by freshman Dontrell Hilliard to form a dynamic and versatile rushing attack. Each possesses a unique skill and while Tulane struggled to consistently find them open space, their playmaking ability was often on display. The challenge in 2015 will be to balance the trio’s usage properly, but it’s clearly the offense’s position of strength and is returning nearly entirely in tact for 2015.


Sacks were too common, as were untimely penalties, but this was easily Tulane’s best season along the offensive line since Johnson arrived three seasons ago. There was also noticeable improvement in the running game and flashes of occasional dominance and stability. However, there were also too many mistakes (particularly early in year) and blown assignments (particularly late in the year) to grade the unit as above average. However, for the future of the program, four of the five starters return, and if they make the same leap next year that they did this year, Tulane may have its best front in recent memory.


This is hard to grade, mostly because youth was more of culprit than ability. There were moments when true freshmen Teddy Veal, Leondre James and Terren Encalade showed outstanding potential and took over drives, but too often Tulane’s quarterbacks were scrambling for room with no one open down the field. Drops on intermediate passes became routine, and when senior Xavier Rush was lost for the season with a torn ACL midway through the year, the group’s stability was nearly erased entirely.


After a slow start, the front four played much better in the second half of the season thanks to the emergence of true freshman Sean Wilson to solidify the middle. It was nowhere near as good as last year’s group, which held opponents to a paltry 3.19 yards per carry, but tackle Tanzel Smart excelled (47½ tackles, 6½ for loss) and end Tyler Gilbert (35 tackles, 12½ stops for loss) was solid. Tulane held five opponents below 100 rushing yards and was gashed only by Cincinnati. When mercurial end Royce LaFrance was on, the line got after quarterbacks, too. LaFrance struggled against UCF and was benched early against Cincinnati but led the Wave with six sacks. Depth was a problem at end. Deposed starter Corey Redwine was functional at tackle.


Nico Marley built on his sensational freshman debut, when he was named Conference USA Co-Freshman of the Year, by making a team-high 13½ stops for loss and finishing second to Sam Scofield with 82 tackles. Middle linebacker Edward Williams improved dramatically as the season went on, making 12 tackles in Tulane’s upset of Houston. For most of the year, though, Marley was a one-man gang at the position. The defense gave up too many big plays, and on many of them a linebacker was trailing a receiver over the middle of the field or running out of his gap. Matthew Bailey was invisible until a strong finale against Temple. Williams (38 tackles), Eric Thomas (30 tackles) and freshman Rae Juan Marbley all struggled at middle linebacker early in the year.


The individual parts were better than the overall performance. Scofield was a tackling machine (94) at free safety for the second consecutive year, highlighted by two fourth-down stops against East Carolina. Darion Monroe (67 tackles) had two interceptions, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. Redshirt freshman cornerback Parry Nickerson was a revelation in coverage, making six interceptions. Although Lorenzo Doss (48 tackles, three interceptions) did not live up to massive preseason expectations, he tied Nickerson with 12 breakups. Yet, Tulane finished sixth out of 11 teams in the AAC in pass efficiency defense, allowed 18 touchdown passes, was torched by Tulsa’s Dane Evans in the second half and by Rutgers QB Gary Nova for four huge plays.


It was a season-long nightmare. The early struggles of freshman kicker Andrew DiRocco, who made only one of five field goals in the first five games, sucked the life out of the team. All of those misses were from 36 yards or closer, forcing the Wave to go for low-percentage fourth downs in scoring range. He improved the rest of the way but missed a 39-yarder against Temple to finish 8 of 15. The Wave finished dead last nationally in kickoff returns (16.8 average), 109th in punt returns, 120th in kickoff coverage and handed Duke nine points with high punt snaps. Kickoff specialist Trevor Simms was the lone bright spot with 13 touchbacks in 32 attempts. Given one chance to try a long field goal, though, he hooked it badly.


This is more of a statement on the season than the program. There are many places to be optimistic of Curtis Johnson’s stewardship of the Green Wave, but a look at what unfolded the past three months on the field isn’t one of them. 3-9 is 3-9, no matter how many freshmen took the field. Tulane’s offense was repugnant after seemingly putting the pieces together in a win at Houston. Lee didn’t show tangible signs of progress and issues in the kicking game and curious play-calling were constant themes of frustration for the fans in Yulman Stadium. Still, the investment in youth paid dividends for Tulane’s defense following 2012 and could do the same for this offense going forward. But, looking solely at the results of 2014, even Johnson would likely say he and his team didn’t pass the test.

Scott Kushner and Guerry Smith