Tulane coach Curtis Johnson, starting his third season, is making believers out of folks in New Orleans after coaching the Green Wave to its first bowl since 2002 last season.
Johnson, a former New Orleans Saints assistant, still has much to prove with an overall coaching record of 9-16 with Tulane. The Green Wave will not have an easy non-conference schedule in 2014 to help improve that record.
Tulane opens on the road against Tulsa on Thursday and must also travel to Duke and Rutgers. The Green Wave host Georgia Tech and Southeastern Louisiana. Tulane won't take Southeastern Louisiana lightly. That program reached the FCS quarterfinals last year.
The Green Wave leave the cavernous Superdome for their new 30,000 Yulman Stadium, a more intimate on-campus facility that is another positive development for Johnson.
"Now all the sudden you have this new stadium and it's coming around," Johnson told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. "For us, it's Christmas every day, it's like candy right now, so you want to match that with your team."
A sign that Johnson is making the right strides is personnel development. Offensive lineman Sean Donnelly, for example, has gone from 30 percent body fat when Johnson arrived, to 19 percent body fat. Donnelly has emerged into an NFL prospect because of that work.
Johnson recruited another NFL prospect -- defensive back Lorenzo Doss -- in his first season. Doss had seven interceptions last fall and was a first-team All Conference USA selection as a sophomore.
"We do feel the pressure of winning and being good but we also have to think about the integrity of the program," Johnson said. "I think you build a program, you don't just jump. So I think we're still in building mode. But I think we just have to play the right guys and put them in the right situations."
PLAYERS TO WATCH
--QB Tanner Lee -- The redshirt freshman has the pressure to succeed despite not taking a snap in college and he knows senior Nick Montana (Joe Montana's son) can replace him at any time. He grew up on the New Orleans Saints sidelines thanks to his family's relationship with neighbor and Saints offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael. Saints quarterbacks coach Mike Neu is also a neighbor who became familiar with Lee long before he arrived on Tulane's campus.
--CB Lorenzo Doss -- The returning All Conference USA selection has been selected to three preseason watch lists, including the Jim Thorpe Award, the Bronko Nagurski Trophy Award from the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and the 20th Annual Chuck Bednarik Award Watch List by the Maxwell Football Club. The junior has played in all 25 games with 22 starts for his career, posting 78 tackles (58 solo, 20 assists) with 12 interceptions, 11 pass break-ups, two fumble recoveries and 1.5 tackles for loss.
--RB Sherman Badie -- The redshirt freshman is another inexperienced performer on offense who should turn heads in 2014. "The thing about Sherman is Sherman was around last year, Sherman played in a system in high school that was really, really demanding," Johnson said of the veer offense Badie played in while at John Curtis High School in New Orleans. "It was very disciplined and so I think the disciplined kids are the ones who excel in this offense just because offensively we're really complicated for a college team."
SERIES HISTORY: Tulane trails in the series with Tulsa 8-2 but the Green Wave snapped the Golden Hurricanes' eight-game winning streak in the series last season.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I thought it was one of those testy-hot days. It was a mental preparation day for us. One of the things that we have to do is we have to learn to play in the heat. This was a good day to do that and I thought practice was pretty good." -- Tulane coach Curtis Johnson commenting on a recent practice in fall camp.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Scouting the running game: Top rusher Orleans Darkwa is gone after gaining 863 yards with 12 scores last season. Backup Rob Kelley returns after rushing for 420 yards and three scores of his own, but Kelley is more of a fullback and not a featured back. He is also trying to become eligible academically this season. Sherman Badie is a redshirt freshman who has made an impact on the offense in fall camp. Josh Rounds, a junior, also has experience with 163 yards on 49 carries last season.
Scouting the passing game: Tulane coach Curtis Johnson chose the future over the present when he selected QB Tanner Lee, a 6-4 redshirt freshman, as his starter only two weeks into fall camp. Experienced quarterbacks Nick Montana (Joe Montana's son) and Devin Powell are ready to step in if Lee falters. Justyn Shackleford, a senior, is the leading returning receiver. He had a solid year as the No. 2 receiver in 2013, catching 36 passes for 419 yards and five touchdowns to complement Ryan Grant (who exhausted his eligibility).
Scouting the run defense: A major concern for Johnson inasmuch as LB Nico Marley (67 tackles, 10.0 tackles for lost yardage) and DE Royce LaFrance (6.5 sacks) are the only other returning starters. Tulane will use three different middle linebackers this season because no one has emerged as a clear starter. Eric Thomas is good against the run but coaches have commented on his over-pursuit on occasion. Edward Williams is going through his first full camp after struggling with an injury last season. Freshman Rae Juan Marbley has size but no experience.
Scouting the pass defense: One of Tulane's strengths is the secondary led by All-America candidate Lorenzo Doss, a junior cornerback. Last season, the Green Wave ranked 22nd nationally in total defense (352.1 yards per game) and were a top 20 team in scoring defense (21.4 points per game). Doss tied for the second-most interceptions in the country (seven) and also broke up nine passes. He led a defense that tied national champion Florida State for the second- most forced turnovers in the country (35). Safeties Sam Scofield (104 tackles) and Darion Monroe (90 tackles) ranked first and second, respectively, on the team in tackles last year.
Scouting the special teams: Tulane lost PK Cairo Santos to the NFL, which opens the door for Andrew DiRocco or Steven Broccoli. Both have struggled with their consistency in fall camp. P Peter Picerelli returns after averaging 41.5 yards per punt last season. Devin Boutte returns after establishing himself last year as a solid and consistent returner of both punts and kickoffs.
DRAFT PROSPECTS (includes 2015 NFLDraftScout.com rating as applicable):
--CB Lorenzo Doss (No. 7 cornerback, 85th overall) -- As a true freshman, Doss worked his way onto the field and started nine games, recording five interceptions. Doss followed that up with seven interceptions last season. He also led the country in interception return yardage last season (185), adding a pair of defensive touchdowns.
--OT Sean Donnelly (No. 28 offensive tackle, 391st overall) -- The senior who is 6-8 and 312 pounds is an important player on the line as the starting right tackle. He is a two-year letterman who has appeared in 30 games with 23 starts. Donnelly has trimmed down from 30 percent body fat to 19 percent since the beginning of last season.
--SS Sam Scofield -- Posted a career-high 18 tackles (14 solo, 4 assists), the most by a Conference USA player in 2013, to go with 1.5 tackles for loss, two pass break-ups and a forced fumble in Tulane's 14-7 over Tulsa last year at the Superdome.
--Starting DE Royce LaFrance will be suspended for the first half of the Tulsa game. LaFrance violated an unspecified team policy.
--RB Rob Kelley is facing the risk of being sidelined for the 2014 because of academics. The program is waiting for Kelley's summer school grades to see if he will qualify to play.
--WR Marc Edwards was taken to the hospital Aug. 21 to have his appendix removed. He will miss the opener against Tulsa on Aug. 28 but will likely return for the Sept. 6 game against visiting Georgia Tech.
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