Tulane football preview for 2016, including keys to success for the Green Wave, best players and season prediction.
Tulane believes it hired a game-changer at head coach. But how long will it take to enjoy tangible results at a program that’s gone 3-9 in each of the last two seasons and has finished above .500 just once over the last 13 years?
It’s tougher to win on Willow Street than it is on most campuses. Tulane is a private college, with elite academics and LSU operating in the same state. Blue-chip recruits in the region play in the SEC, while preferred walk-ons often find it difficult to afford the hefty Green Wave price tag. However, there’s cautious optimism that Willie Fritz, a proven winner and turnaround artist, can gradually change the football culture.
Fritz wins, regardless of the school or the unique challenges. In his last 17 seasons as a head coach, his teams finished below .500 just one time. He’s 154-69 all-time at Central Missouri, Sam Houston State and Georgia Southern, where he successfully guided the Eagles from the FCS to the FBS over the last two years. In Fritz, Tulane believes it got exactly what it needed, the owner of the secret sauce for winning games.
The main ingredient of that secret sauce is a diverse, downhill ground game that led the country in rushing in each of the last two years. Fritz’s teams operate the triple option out of spread formations, creating wide lanes with which to exploit. His first team in New Orleans features the requisite running backs, led by Dontrell Hilliard, to go along with question marks up front and at quarterback, where untested Glen Cuiellette and Darius Bradwell will resume their battle in the summer.
Defense has been a persistent problem for the Green Wave. And while an about-face may be a big ask for a first-year staff, there’s enough returning talent to at least be improved in 2016. In fact, coordinator Jack Curtis inherits All-AAC contenders at each level, DT Tanzel Smart, LB Nico Marley and ball-hawking DBs Jarrod Franklin and Parry Nickerson. Again, flawed, but the parts are in place for positive steps as long as the entire unit tackles better and fine-tunes its fundamentals.
Tulane is still the team with the uphill climb ahead and the string of forgettable seasons fading in the rear view mirror. Fritz, though, brings an accomplished resume and a dynamic offensive attack to the Green Wave. He’s also a purveyor of hope at a program that’s harbored few reasons for optimism under recent predecessors, Curtis Johnson, Bob Toledo and Chris Scelfo. Tulane has a new staff, a new AD and relatively new stadiums and leagues to call home. If the team can just go out and start winning more consistently, the fan base will reciprocate with an appropriate level of support.
What You Need to Know About the Tulane Offense
It’s the dawn of a new day for Tulane, typified by a complete shift in offensive philosophy. Willie Fritz will employ his version of the Pistol, which plays to the strength of his personnel and attempts to wear down opponents with a relentless ground game.
Testament to the coach’s commitment to the run, his Georgia Southern teams led the FBS in rushing in each of the last two years. And while the Green Wave won’t keep that trend going in 2016, it won’t be for a lack of trying
. Tulane will be ground-based, which is why last year’s starting quarterback, Tanner Lee, and top receiver, Teddy Veal, elected to transfer. The Green Wave harbors the necessary backs, led by Dontrell Hilliard, to keep drives humming. But the rest of the cast is questionable. Neither of the primary contenders for the QB opening, Glen Cuiellette or Darius Bradwell, has played a down at this level, the receivers are unproven and the line is replacing three starters. Plus, there’s the whole learning curve that comes with a new playbook and new assignments. Tulane did get one piece of good news when Devon Breaux, a track star who also plays football, reversed course and announced he’d be returning to the team in the fall.
Biggest Key To The Tulane Offense
A mad scramble for carries. The new staff learned in the spring it inherited four talented backs in New Orleans, Dontrell Hilliard, Sherman Badie, Josh Rounds and Lazedrick Thompson, all of whom are in the mix to start. And that’s a very good thing since the offense will lean very heavily on the rushing attack under Willie Fritz and neither of the likely stating quarterbacks, sophomore Glen Cuiellette and redshirt freshman Darius Bradwell has never played a snap at this level.
What You Need to Know About the Tulane Defense
It’s not as if the Green Wave lacks talent on defense. DT Tanzel Smart and LB Nico Marley are front seven all-stars, and just one starter is gone from a five-man secondary. However, new coordinator Jack Curtis will need to get this unit playing with more consistency to improve upon last year’s porous results.
Tulane yielded an average of 39 points in its 11 games with FBS opponents, dogged by poor tackling and blown coverages. Curtis plans to employ a balanced D that won’t be defined by one specific approach or philosophy. His biggest objectives will be to coach up a defensive backfield that suffered too many breakdowns in 2015 and to develop a couple of consistent edge rushers.
The secondary is littered with experience and potential playmakers, like CB Parry Nickerson and FS Jarrod Franklin. Meanwhile, fingers are crossed that junior Quinlan Carroll can continue rising up to provide an answer opposite Ade Aruna at defensive end.
Biggest Key To The Tulane Defense
A five-man secondary. As his base alignment, new coordinator Jack Curtis plans to use a nickel back, likely senior Richard Allen, in place of a third linebacker. The Green Wave is cautiously optimistic about the front six, led by LB Nico Marley and interior linemen Tanzel Smart and Sean Wilson. Plus, Allen is an experienced cornerback who can help support a secondary that was vulnerable to decent quarterbacks a season ago.
Tulane Will Be Far Better If …
the defense is able to tote more of the weight this season. The Green Wave has a legitimate shot to make strides on offense, as the new staff focuses on ball security and a commitment to the pounding the ball with a triple-option determination. But those gains are liable to be erased if Tulane is once again an olive and blue sieve. The team gave up more than 36 points per game in 2015, with improved open-field tackling emerging as a top priority needing to be addressed.
Best Offensive Player
Junior RB Dontrell Hilliard. QB Tanner Lee transferred to Nebraska and WR Teddy Veal fled for Louisiana Tech, leaving Hilliard as the top remaining Green Wave offensive player. And while the talented back, who rushed for a team-high 646 yards and six scores last season, is being pushed for touches, he’s going to be tough to keep off the field. Willie Fritz is looking to champion his most complete back, and Hilliard has already shown a propensity for moving the chains as a runner and a receiver.
Best Defensive Player
Senior DT Tanzel Smart. With all due respect to LB Nico Marley, who’s been a tackling machine on the Bayou, Smart is the Green Wave defender most likely to continue his playing career on Sundays. The reigning member of the All-AAC First Team will anchor the Tulane D-line from tackle, yet also possesses the quickness and the drive to make plays behind the line of scrimmage. Smart will be the one Green Wave player that jumps out when pro scouts turn on the film this fall.
Key Player to a Successful Season
The new quarterback. Whoever wins the job, either sophomore Glen Cuiellette or true freshman Darius Bradwell, won’t be asked to carry the offense. That’ll be the responsibility of the backs. The starting QB, though, must run the attack efficiently, making good decisions with the ball and limiting costly turnovers. If Cuiellette and Bradwell, both of whom lack college experience, perform like wide-eyed newcomers, it’s going to hamstring every other facet of this offense.
The Season Will Be a Success If …
the Green Wave eclipses last year’s 3-9 mark and is building a head of steam as the regular season is coming to a close. Willie Fritz is going to turn things around in New Orleans, but 2016 is more about laying a foundation, especially since the quarterback situation is such a gray area. There’s just one likely win on the schedule, Week 2 versus Southern, and a handful of tough games against the likes of Wake Forest, Navy, Tulsa, Houston, Temple and UConn. Win four, preferably including a November upset, and Tulane can carry a little tailwind into the next offseason.
Nov. 19 vs. Temple. Tulane would like to leave a lasting impression, for its players and its fans, in 2016. So, an upset during the second half of the year could have a carryover effect that positively impacts offseason conditioning and ticket sales. Winning at Houston or UConn in November seems unlikely for a program that’s 5-26 outside of New Orleans over the last five seasons. However, upsetting the Owls, the defending East Division champs, could be within reach if the Green Wave begins to coalesce as the campaign is winding down.
2015 Fun Stats
– Scoring: Tulane 19.7 – Opponents 36.2
– Rushing yards per game: Tulane 115.8 – Opponents 178.8
– Third down %: Tulane 34% – Opponents 46%