First-year Tulane head coach Curtis Johnson looks to build on the Green Wave's two-win '11 campaign.
By: Athlon Sports | 5/5/12, 12:17 PM EDT
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C-USA West PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: Curtis Johnson, First Season | OFF. COORDINATOR: Eric Price | DEF. COORDINATOR: Jon Sumrall, Lionel Washington
It didn’t long for first-year Tulane coach Curtis Johnson to realize that he was inheriting one of the better quarterbacks in Conference USA. Ryan Griffin, now a senior, will operate the Green Wave’s attack for the third straight season. In 2011, Griffin threw for 2,502 yards and 13 touchdowns with 10 interceptions. “He is what you want in a quarterback,” Johnson says.
Griffin also has an excellent running game to rely on, which should open up the passing game. Junior Orleans Darkwa, who rushed for 925 yards as a freshman and 924 as a sophomore, is the second-leading returning rusher in C-USA. He’s a good bet to get the most carries, but Johnson says that he will play multiple tailbacks. Dante Butler had only six carries as a freshman in 2011, but he is an explosive back who is capable of breaking off big runs with consistency. Derrick Strozier, a converted defensive back, is another option at tailback. Fullback Stephen Barnett also figures into the running game mix.
Wilson Van Hooser and Ryan Grant are experienced receivers, but both are coming off injuries. Van Hooser caught 36 passes and led the Wave in receiving yards (487) in 2011.
The offensive line, with two starters back, should be solid, but depth is lacking.
Tulane’s starters at linebacker can match up favorably with any in the conference. Pencil middle linebacker Trent Mackey in for more than 100 tackles for the third consecutive season. He’s perhaps the best linebacker in C-USA and also the centerpiece of a strong linebacker corps. Outside backer Darryl Farley was second on the team in tackles last season with 69, and Matthew Bailey played in all 13 games as a true freshman.
Up front, Tulane is inexperienced but talented. Defensive end Austen Jacks is the lone player with considerable experience. The top playmaker on the unit could be Michael Pierce, who lines up at the other defensive end. Tackle Julius Warmsley could be a future standout.
Strong safety Shakiel Smith is the most experienced player in the secondary and needs to be a leader. But he’s also surrounded by some experienced players. Free safety Kyle Davis and cornerback Ryan Travis played a bunch last season. Travis was the team leader with four interceptions.
The surprise of the secondary is true freshman cornerback Jordan Batiste, who arrived in the spring and promptly won a starting job.
Johnson has confidence in placekicker Cairo Santos (24-of-34 in two years), but the coach is worried about consistency from punter Jonathan Ginsburgh. Santos might have to handle both duties if Ginsburgh doesn’t improve. Strozier will handle both kickoff and punt returns and could be the top return man in the conference.
What would be a successful season for a Tulane program stuck in neutral since playing in the 2002 Hawaii Bowl? The honest answer would be a one- or two-game improvement over 2011, when the Green Wave went 2–11 and lost their final 10 games.
Johnson has some experienced players in key areas, and the change at the top has created some excitement on the Tulane campus, something that’s been missing for a while. But he’s also a first-year head coach, and anything more than a small step forward would be a pleasant surprise.