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TGS 2012 COLLEGE FOOTBALL PREVIEW...TULANE GREEN WAVE
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


Here we go again at Tulane!

Like a cat chasing its own tail, the Green Wave seems destined to continue pursuing what it cannot catch on the gridiron...namely, success.

We wonder, however, how much all of is bothers the student body and alumni at the school, all of whom seeming to have better things to do than worry about Tulane’s long-suffering football program. The tree-lined campus in ‘Nawlins is known to attract a different crowd than many schools in the football-mad region.

To confirm our suspicions, not long ago we asked Jimmy Ott, a longtime friend and popular sports talk host in nearby Baton Rouge, and a local native, if he once upon a time had considered becoming a Greenie and attending Tulane. Jimmy gave us a curious look. “Well,” said Ott, “it’s a great school, nice campus and all, but I wasn’t sure how I would fit in with all of those guys wearing tassles on their shoes.” Ott, like many others in the region, attended LSU instead, with Tulane the preferred destination of the preppy element in which football is usually not a top priority.

The latest example of the Wave’s gridiron frustration came last season, when Bob Toledo’s run as head coach ended before he could complete his fifth season in charge. Which came as no surprise to Ott and other Conference USA onlookers who knew that Toledo (right) was on the hot seat in New Orleans and had been given one extra season to forge a turnaround mostly because the Tulane administration didn’t want to fork over any extra money to facilitate a buyout earlier than it could afford. But after hinting at a possible breakthrough early in the campaign, the Greenies slumped for the last time under the former UCLA and University of Pacific coach Toledo, who stepped down under pressure at midseason. Co-offensive coordinator Mark Hutson led the Wave for the last half of the season, which couldn’t end soon enough. By the time the dust cleared and the wreckage could be assessed, Tulane had fallen to a 2-11 mark, losing its last ten games before embarking upon yet another search for a head coach.

Good luck, because even if the Greenies found the right man in former Saints wide receiver coach Curtis Johnson (left), history indicates Tulane might not be able to hang on to him. If no suitors call, however, the Wave is likely struggling, also a very familiar tune in the 16th Ward.

Indeed, Tulane football seems to be caught between a rock and a hard place, as usual.

Moreover, with nine losing seasons in a row, a dwindling fan base, and reduced to picking from leftovers in the regional talent pool that will always see its best players lured to SEC schools, the coaching position is arguably one of the toughest in the FBS ranks. Did Johnson know about all of this when taking the job?

The history of Green Wave football extends to the late 1890s, and includes several decades at old Tulane Stadium, a huge on-campus arena that was the annual site of the Sugar Bowl and three early NFL Super Bowls. Indeed, the last football game played at the stadium was the memorable Super Bowl IX between the Vikings and Steelers in January of 1975, one in which Pittsburgh won by a 16-6 count to give longtime owner Art Rooney his first championship. Five years earlier, the Chiefs had upset the Vikings, 23-7, in Super Bowl IV, the final game for an AFL team and immortalized by NFL Films thanks to the microphone it attached to colorful Kansas City coach Hank Stram during the game. In January of 1972, the Dallas Cowboys finally broke their championship duck with a 24-3 win over the Dolphins in Super Bowl VI, although the lasting memory of that game was Dallas RB Duane Thomas’ brief, one-word answer (“Evidently”) to a long-winded question from CBS announcer Tom Brookshier during the postgame celebration. The interview, which can be accessed via You Tube, is complete with the great Jim Brown standing alongside Thomas and Brookshier, adding to the flavor of the moment.

Tulane football has always had trouble maintaining whatever successes it might achieve, mostly because its best coaches usually leave for elsewhere. Legendary gridiron leaders such as Clark Shaughnessy and Bernie Bierman had several winning sides in the pre-World War II era before moving to higher-profile locales. Later, the program was outgunned during its days in the SEC, and after years of absorbing frightful beatings decided to pull from the loop in 1966, going the independent route thereafter until eventually enlisting with CUSA as a charter member of that new league in 1995.

Upon its exit from the SEC, the Wave made a modest recovery thereafter under HC Jim Pittman, reaching the Liberty Bowl in 1970 where it defeated Eddie Crowder’s Colorado, 17-3, behind two TDs from RB David Abercrombie (left), before Pittman would resign and take the TCU job (Pittman sadly passed away the following October when suffering a fatal heart attack during a game against Baylor). Later in the decade, the Wave would again resurface under HC Larry Smith, whose 1979 team, led by QB Roch Hontas, made it back to another Liberty Bowl, before Smith was lured to Arizona.

Pittman, Smith, Mack Brown (two years on the job in 1986-87, the latter season qualifying for the Independence Bowl, before being hired by North Carolina), and Tommy Bowden (two years, including the wondrous 12-0 mark on 1998 featuring Shaun King at QB and an o.c. named Rich Rodriguez, before being hired at Clemson) were among the few who have won briefly at Tulane, only to be immediately lured elsewhere. Mostly, however, the past four decades have featured more coaches who have eventually failed (Bennie Ellender, Vince Gibson, Wally English, Greg Davis, Buddy Teevens, Chris Scelfo, and the aforementioned Bob Toledo), unable to gain traction before retiring or being forced out.

There is hope in the Big Easy, however, that a new on-campus stadium (artist rendering at right), which could be ready for the 2014 season, might provide a spark to a program that has been used to playing in front of 60,000 or more empty seats in the cavernous downtown Superdome. After much political haggling, the new stadium finally got a go-ahead in early July when the New Orleans City Council repealed an “Interim Zoning District” that had been prompted by local anti-stadium forces. With the IZD roadblock out of the way, construction on the new facility, expected to seat 30,000, is expected to begin shortly, with the target date of 2014.

Indeed, that might be the first bit of good news for Tulane football in the past decade, which included the nightmarish 2005 campaign when the school itself closed for the fall semester following the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. The Wave football team relocated to La Tech’s campus in Ruston that fall and played home games elsewhere in the state before returning to its New Orleans base the next season in 2006.

The hiring of Johnson last December represents a departure from recent Tulane hiring norms that have focused instead upon coaches with college backgrounds. Hoping to capitalize upon the popularity of the hometown NFL Saints, the Greenies have nonetheless gambled on Johnson, with no head coaching experience. But if there is ever a program that ought to roll the dice on a new hire, Tulane is certainly it.

Johnson, however, is plenty familiar with the college level after serving as a high-profile assistant and recruiter extraordinaire at places such as San Diego State (where he was instrumental in landing RB Marshall Faulk, a Big Easy product) and Miami-Florida, where Johnson spent a decade as WR coach and helped land sorts such as Andre Johnson, Santana Moss, and Reggie Wayne, while also being instrumental in luring another New Orleans-area product, Ed Reed, to the Hurricanes. Established recruiting ties in the area, and the Saints connection, convinced Tulane to give Johnson the shot.

CUSA insiders, however, are paying close attention to Johnson’s early strategy, which includes a move away from the West Coast offense preferred by Toledo the past few years. Instead, Johnson’s Tulane attacks will implement a more pro-style scheme featuring lots of screen passes and specific packages designed for the running backs.

On the surface, that strategy doesn’t sound so bad, as the strength (such as it is) of the Wave offense is likely with its RBs corps led by punishing jr. 214-lb. jr. Orleans Darkwa (right), who gained 924 YR and scored 13 TDs in 2011 despite being hobbled by a torn ligament in his knee. Darkwa, who burst upon the scene with 925 YR as a frosh in 2010, could match the sort of numbers posted not long ago at Tulane by Matt Forte, now one of the NFL’s top rushers with the Chicago Bears.

Keep in mind, however, that, outside of Darkwa, Johnson and new o.c. Eric Price (a longtime offensive strategist and son of UTEP HC Mike Price) don’t have a lot to work with in New Orleans, inheriting a strike force that ranked 105th nationally in scoring (20.1 ppg) and 97th in total offense. At least there is plenty of room for improvement.

But Johnson’s Saints connection is already proving a morale boost, if nothing else. Senior QB Ryan Griffin (left, under siege at SMU last November), a 3-year starter, was practically gushing during spring at the thought of mimicking the local NFL team. “We practiced like the Saints,” said Griffin, “so maybe we’ll play like them at some point, too!”

Griffin, however, is no Drew Brees. And despite throwing for over 6000 yards in his college career, he’s a stationary target in the pocket and no guarantee to hold off frosh Devin Powell, a more-mobile threat who is likely to bypass a redshirt year if he can master the new Johnson/Price offense soon enough. CUSA sources indicate that if Powell shows promise, and the Wave continues to lose with Griffin at the controls, don’t be surprised to see a QB switch later in the season.

Johnson and Price also have to quickly retool an already-shabby OL that lost three starters from a year ago. As well as find some contributors in a receiving corps that could get a boost from the return of junior wideout Ryan Grant (right), who flashed plenty of upside when catching 33 passes in 2010 but sat out all of last season due to a sports hernia. Another junior, Wilson Van Hooser, displayed occasionally ability to get deep as a soph last fall when catching 33 passes, although the healthy return of Grant (the only Wave wideout who has demonstrated a consistent ability to create separation with DBs) will be a critical development in the fall.

What Johnson would also like to do is utilize his TEs in the passing game, but the many drops by projected soph starter Matt Marfisi in the spring game hardly boosted the new staff’s confidence.

Expect Johnson to continue with position shifting in fall camp after beginning that process in spring. Former CB Derrick Strozier was moved to RB in March to provide backfield depth behind Darkwa, and the versatile Jamar Thomas, who caught 32 passes last season, was the designated guinea pig in spring, moved around to RB and DB spots as Johnson looks for more ways to get him on to the field.

Jump-starting the offense is only half of the problem, however, for the Wave. There’s still the defense, which allowed a whopping 37.5 ppg in 2011 (ranking an awful 115th nationally) and like the offense has significant questions along the line.

Johnson and new co-d.c.’s Lionel Washington (a longtime NFL secondary coach who will call the defensive plays) and John Sumrall spent springtime installing a newer and more flexible scheme that will mostly operate out of a base 4-3 but have the ability to adjust into 3-4 looks as necessary. The presence of a deep LB corps, the apparent strength of the platoon, makes the 3-4 alignments even more appealing.

Still, there are severe depth issues along the DL, which lost three senior starters from last year (when the line admittedly wasn’t that good) including DE Dezman Moses, spending this summer in the Green Bay Packers camp.

The pass rush, which displayed occasional spark a year ago, could benefit from the presence of soph DE Michael Pierce, Jr. (left), previously a converted LB but who suggested in spring work that he might be the perfect fit for the hybrid DE/LB role that the defensive brain trust envisions.

The aforementioned LB corps returns playmaking sr. MLB Trent Mackey (right, nailing a UTEP ball carrier last October), who led the team, and finished second among all CUSA defenders, with 145 tackles last season, as well as another sr., Darryl Farley, who impressed the new coaches in spring with his burst from the outside. Look for d.c.’s Washington and Sumrall to look for ways to feature Farley and Pierce in the fall while Mackey stays at home as the enforcer in the middle.

The secondary expected to return three starters, but one of those, CB Jordan Sullen, was dismissed from the school over the winter and won’t return. Sources say some of Johnson’s regional recruits could make an immediate impact, especially well-regarded preps Jordan Batiste (via Lutcher, La.), who despite smallish stature at 5'9 already claimed a starting CB role in spring, and another frosh CB, Darlon Monroe (from LaPlace, La.).

If the “D” is going to risk these frosh on the corners, however, good luck limiting the big-play weakness that often burned last year’s stop unit.

Unfortunately for Johnson, the schedule has no gimmes, as there isn’t a lower-level FCS entry (such as SE Louisiana the last two seasons) on the 2012 slate. Remember, the Green Wave was bad enough last season to get thrashed by Memphis 33-17, so there is a long slog ahead of Johnson. Tulane also hasn’t had a winning pointspread mark since Bob Toledo’s first season of 2007; since late in the 2008 campaign the Wave has posted a sorry 12-27-1 spread mark its last 40 games on the board.

We ask again...is Johnson sure he wants this job?

Summary...Entrusting a new hire with no head coaching experience to pump life into one of the nation’s most-moribund programs is either a shrewd gamble or an unnecessary risk. But even if new HC Curtis Johnson fails at Tulane, what’s the harm? The Wave is a decade removed from its last bowl appearance and a winning record, and the hope is that Johnson at least begins the early stages of a turnaround this fall. Incremental progress shouldn’t be hard after last year’s side played out the string following Bob Toledo’s departure, but we are not holding our breath for meaningful progress this season, as we are skeptical about Johnson’s hire until proven otherwise. We would still pay attention, however, because Tulane is likely to be a deeply discounted side, and there are enough playmaking elements on offense to suggest this could be a team not as bad as projected, and possibly an underrated pointspread force. After all, it would be hard for the Wave to be any worse than it was a year ago...right?

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