2015 CFB Preview – Tulane

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How long must Green Wave fans wait for the next breakthrough season?

By Rich Cirminiello | @RichCirminiello

After ending its Conference USA tenure with an unlikely bowl berth in 2013, Tulane reverted back to old form in its American debut. The Green Wave went 3-9 in 2014, and has now gone 3-13 in its last 16 games versus FBS opponents. One of the few silver linings from a year ago was that an unusually high number of freshmen lettered, lending hope that the 2015 edition will be distinctly more competitive.

All eyes this offseason will be on sophomore QB Tanner Lee, whose development will have the biggest impact on Tulane’s quest for a return to respectability.

Lee was the face of an attack that tantalized with potential, yet rarely sustained much consistency. The Green Wave sputtered regularly and turned the ball over often, finishing 2014 as one of the American’s feeblest offenses. However, Lee is a year older, as are developing WR Teddy Veal, TE Charles Jones and an eclectic mix of backs.

The offense can’t help but be improved. But by how much? So much will hinge on the maturation of No. 12 and the play-calling of coordinator Eric Price, a regular target of criticism among Tulane fans.

The special teams, too, is in disarray, leaving the defense to shoulder much of the load again this fall. The Green Wave is experienced and opportunistic on D, helping keep the team competitive with timely stops and tempo-changing turnovers.

Tulane has succeeded in recent years in signing undersized athletes that the SEC bypasses and transforming them into frenetic playmakers. The blueprint has worked, but much more help will be needed this fall from other areas of the roster, namely the offense and the kicking game.

Success can be fleeting at places like Tulane, a fine institution that will forever reside in the enormous shadows of SEC programs in the region. And momentum doesn’t last for very long. So, that surprising New Orleans Bowl appearance from two years ago is already a distant memory. The Green Wave needs to rebound right away, because the riptide in these parts often brings a succession of losing seasons ashore. Head coach Curtis Johnson is pining for a bounce back, too, now that he’s slipped to 12-25 through three seasons.

What you need to know about the offense: Most of the offseason attention will be given to this side of the ball, because if Tulane doesn’t improve dramatically on offense, the program will again finish below .500. Last year’s 3-9 squad averaged just 16 points per game, while ranking 114th nationally in yards per play. Hope, though, comes from the return of nine starters, including linchpin sophomore QB Tanner Lee and many members of his emerging supporting cast. Lee, naturally, is the key, needing to shake off a weak finish and move the offense with far more consistency. He’ll need to improve his decisions and cut down on his turnovers to maximize the potential of up-and-coming skill guys, like WR Teddy Veal, TE Charles Jones and backs Sherman Badie, Lazedrick Thompson and Dontrell Hilliard. If the Green Wave attack is unable to turn the corner this fall, coordinator Eric Price, at a minimum, won’t likely avoid the axe in December.

What you need to know about the defense: At least in the early going, Tulane will be led by a defense that should be sneaky-good in 2015. While losing CB Lorenzo Doss to the NFL stings, there’s a base of talent on which a pretty feisty D will be built. The Green Wave may not be stout, an issue versus downhill running teams, but the players are going to fly all over the field, creating a bunch of turnovers and big hits. LB Nico Marley is the tone-setter from weakside, and CB Parry Nickerson and S Darion Monroe are back-end playmakers. Raising the bar, however, will hinge on two things, the situation at defensive end and how well junior Richard Allen supplants Doss. The tackles, Tanzel Smart, Sean Wilson and Corey Redwine, figure to be a team strength. On the flanks, though, Tulane needs top pass rusher Royce LaFrance to emerge from the academic paddy wagon and someone to take heat off him when he does. Fingers are crossed that athletic sophomore Ade Aruna can begin emerging into a playmaker off the edge this season.

What to watch for on offense: Less confusion and chaos. The Green Wave was feeble on offense last season, failing to score more than 14 points in eight of its last nine games. To be fair, though, Tulane had a rookie quarterback often throwing—and handing—the ball to other rookies. It was hardly an ideal situation, but just about everyone is back, including QB Tanner Lee, the top three rushers and an enclave of former freshmen pass-catchers. While an overnight juggernaut shouldn’t be expected, the Green Wave can’t help but be a little more efficient with the ball this season.

What to watch for on defense: Richard Allen will be a favorite target of opposing quarterbacks. Not only did all-star CB Lorenzo Doss leave school early to enter the draft, but Parry Nickerson on the other side is a certified ball-hawk who picked off six passes as a redshirt freshman. Allen, assuming he holds on to the job to replace Doss, figures to get picked on mercilessly until he proves up to the challenge. Allen has excellent speed, but he’s inexperienced and just 5-9 and 178 pounds, all of which leads to a likely baptism by fire in 2015.

The team will be far better if … the special teams stops being a weekly drag on the offense and the defense. Tulane doesn’t have enough playmakers on either side of the ball to overcome the American’s worst collection of special teamers. Sure, Peter Picerelli is an experienced punter, but PK Andrew DiRocco made just 8-of-15 field goals in 2014, and the coverage and return games were brutally inept. The staff is spending a lot of time this offseason tinkering with a unit that cost last year’s squad at least a game or two that could have gone either way.

The Schedule:
– The Green Wave plays three opponents that operate out of a triple-option offensive base, Georgia Tech, Navy and Army.
– Two of Tulane’s four non-conference opponents, Duke and Georgia Tech, are members of the ACC. And the Green Wave will see both in the first two weeks of the season.
– Seven of the first eight teams on the Green Wave slate either played in a bowl game or finished last year at .500.
– However, if Tulane can remain above water in September and October, November will provide a chance to become bowl-eligible. November is marked by four schools, UConn, Army, SMU and Tulsa, that finished 2014 with a losing record.
– The 2015 schedule features a couple of tough draws out of the East Division, hosting UCF and trekking north to Philadelphia to play Temple on consecutive Saturdays.
– WATCH OUT FOR … UConn. Memphis has had a habit of physically wearing down teams during the Justin Fuente era. Tulane must play the Tigers the week before UConn arrives at Yulman Stadium.

Best Offensive Player: Sophomore Tanner Lee. No one is facing more pressure this season than Lee. But no one on offense possesses more upside potential either. He has the necessary arm strength to fit the ball into tight windows, and he now has a full season of experience in the American to call upon. Plus, Lee has used the offseason to enhance his chemistry with formerly unproven receivers, like Teddy Veal. If Tulane can find ways to get RB Sherman Badie more involved in the passing game, Lee’s chances of fulfilling his potential grow even higher.

Best Defensive Player: Junior LB Nico Marley. Marley is 200 pounds of boundless energy, a contagious defender who inspires his Green Wave teammates to be better. He’s the face of a defense that isn’t going to be the biggest, but will compensate with effort, speed to the ball and a general desire to wreak havoc. Marley will forever be underestimated because of his size, but Tulane covets what he’s brought to the D the last two years … and what he’ll do for it over the next two seasons.

Key player to a successful season: Lee. Sure, Lee has the highest ceiling of any offensive player in New Orleans, but he’s also facing the most heat after debuting in 2014 with more interceptions than touchdown passes. Lee looked like a budding star last August, but injured his shoulder and never got out of a tailspin. He must play the way he did versus Tulsa and Houston, throwing six touchdown passes and two picks, because Tulane will be stuck in neutral if it doesn’t see improved play at quarterback in 2015.

The season will be a success if … Tulane breaks even and vies for a minor bowl game. Yeah, six wins means doubling last year’s total, but after opening with Duke and Georgia Tech, the Green Wave should have the defense to at least compete with everyone else on the schedule. The team gets UCF and Houston at Yulman, and November is built for a possible strong final kick. With so many returning starters back, Tulane can’t help but be improved this fall.

Key game: Nov. 7 vs. Connecticut. The way the schedule lays out, it’s conceivable that Tulane can carry a four-game winning streak into either the postseason or next season. But capitalizing on a soft back end hinges on beginning the month by taking care of business versus the visiting Huskies. The Green Wave should be favored at home, providing for a potential tailwind that can be taken into trips to Army and SMU, and a season-ending visit from Tulsa.

2014 Fun Stats:
– Points off turnovers: Tulane 90 – Opponents 199
– Average yards per pass: Tulane 5.5 – Opponents 7.3
– Third-down %: Tulane 33% – Opponents 38%

Players You Need To Know

1. LB Nico Marley, Jr.
By numerous measures, Marley is exactly what Tulane is looking for at linebacker—compact, fast and fueled by boundless energy. Bob Marley’s grandson may only be 5-9 and 207 pounds, but no one on the Green Wave plays with more passion, and few are as tough. The starter at weakside is a force of nature, flying around the field to make his presence felt. Marley was named honorable mention All-AAC a year ago, collecting 82 tackles, a team-high 13.5 stops for loss and two fumble recoveries. And he’s also a leader and one of the program’s most admired players.

2. DE Royce LaFrance, Sr.
Tulane desperately needed someone to step up and ignite a feeble pass rush last season. LaFrance fit the bill for the Green Wave, bagging a program-best six sacks, as well as 34 tackles and 11 stops for minus yards. And what’s most exciting about LaFrance’s emergence as a pass rusher is that it’s happened as he’s grown to 6-4 and 265 pounds. No longer the skinny kid from Harvey, La., he’s now built to succeed on every down, and even attract the attention of pro scouts in the fall. First, though, he needs to get his books in order after being suspended this past spring.

3. CB Parry Nickerson, Soph.
Nickerson was one of Tulane’s biggest surprises last season, earning Freshman All-American recognition the year after his rookie season was curtailed by knee problems. Performing with uncommon confidence for such an inexperienced corner, he picked off six passes, broke up six others and got his nose in on 51 tackles. The 5-11, 179-pound was named honorable mention All-AAC, but he’s capable of quickly scaling the league charts, provided he remains healthy.

4. FS Darion Monroe, Sr.
Monroe originally committed to Texas A&M two years ago. The Aggies could have used his playmaking ability over the last two seasons. He continues to be one of the Green Wave’s most versatile defensive backs, contributing to the run defense as well as the pass D. Monroe has remarkably started 37 consecutive games for Tulane, lending a hand at both strong safety and nickel. In 2014, he was third on the team with 73 stops, while also making five tackles for loss, two interceptions and two fumble recoveries.

5. QB Tanner Lee, Soph.
Lee endured his share of ups-and-downs as a freshman starter last season, but the staff is no less excited about his future in New Orleans. He only completed 185-of-336 passes for 1,962 yards, 12 touchdowns and 14 interceptions, missing a pair of games to injury. The Green Wave really likes the arm talent of their budding 6-4, 220-pound, and believes he’s going to become markedly better as his number of reps—and his confidence—head north.

6. RB Sherman Badie, Soph.
Badie set the bar insanely high in his college debut, strafing Tulsa for 215 yards on just 15 carries. And then the grind of his first college season wore him down and curbed his potential. He ended up with a team-high 688 yards and three scores on 121 carries. However, Badie’s ability to be a homerun hitter out of the backfield is undeniable. If an offseason in the weight means improved durability for the 6-0, 195-pound, he could be a breakout star in the American.

7. DT Tanzel Smart, Jr.
Smart put down a solid foundation in 2014, which he plans to build upon this fall. After getting into the best shape of his Green Wave career, he started every game, while displaying good quickness off the snap. The 6-1, 303-pounder posted impressive numbers for a first-time starter, 47 tackles, 6.5 stops for loss and two sacks. And Smart possesses the blue-collar work ethic that assures continued growth and development.

8. WR Teddy Veal, Soph.
Veal is already Tulane’s top all-around receiver, and the best is yet to come for the second-year sophomore. He started half of his games as a rookie, making a team-high 40 receptions for 381 yards and one score. The 5-11, 185-pounder possesses outstanding speed and feel for the game at “Z”. Now, Veal must fine-tune his game in 2015, while the coaching staff creates new ways to unleash him in space.

9. TE Charles Jones, Soph.
It didn’t get much attention, but Jones had a very solid debut out of St. Augustine (La.) High School. He started six games and caught 21 balls for 192 yards and three touchdowns. Those 21 receptions rank tenth all-time for a Green Wave tight end. The 6-3, 245-pound Jones flashes good speed and quickness to go along with the sturdy frame to box out defenders and earn additional yards after the catch.

10. OT Arturo Uzdavinis, Sr.
Uzdavinis is the veteran of a Green Wave offensive line that must improve in all phases in 2015. The long and lean 6-7, 307-pounder has started the past 25 games at left tackle, providing the unit with a sense of stability and continuity. Uzdavinis, like the rest of his linemates, needs to improve as a blocker. But he knows his assignments, has the long arms to keep opposing linemen off his chest and has earned a lot of valuable reps while in New Orleans.

Head Coach: Curtis Johnson
4th year: 12-25
Sept. 3 Duke
Sept. 12 at Georgia Tech
Sept. 19 Maine
Sept. 26 OPEN DATE
Oct. 3 UCF
Oct. 10 at Temple
Oct. 16 Houston
Oct. 24 at Navy
Oct. 31 at Memphis
Nov. 7 Connecticut
Nov. 14 at Army
Nov. 21 at SMU
Nov. 28 Tulsa
Ten Best Tulane Players
1. LB Nico Marley, Jr.
2. DE Royce LaFrance, Sr.
3. CB Parry Nickerson, Soph.
4. FS Darion Monroe, Sr.
5. QB Tanner Lee, Soph.
6. RB Sherman Badie, Soph.
7. DT Tanzel Smart, Jr.
8. WR Teddy Veal, Soph.
9. TE Charles Jones, Soph.
10. OT Arturo Uzdavinis, Sr.