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Willie Fritz has a trend, but unfortunately, so does Tulane football in general

The Green Wave head coach tends to get his teams in gear by year two. Hey, it’s year two now.

NCAA Football: Navy at Tulane Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Sports

On November 30, 1974, Tulane closed its home stadium in a sadly appropriate way.

The Green Wave had been in the middle of a mini-renaissance under Bennie Ellender, having finished 9-3 and 20th in the country in 1973 — only the second ranked finish in 23 years for the former SEC team. But after starting 1974 with five wins and rising to 18th, they plummeted. Amid a five-game losing streak came losses to former SEC foes Georgia Tech, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, and LSU. And on the final Saturday of the regular season, Ole Miss visited.

On an unseasonably cold Saturday in front of only 21,628 in the chasmic Tulane Stadium — many of them in the Rebels’ red and navy — Tulane fell behind 19-0 in the third quarter.

Despite outgaining the Rebels by a 349-196 margin, an incredible nine turnovers did the Green Wave in. Ole Miss won, 26-10, and a few years later, Tulane Stadium, home of three Super Bowls, Tom Dempsey's 63-yard field goal, and 80,000 fans at its peak, came crashing to the ground.

In the decades that followed, Tulane acted like a program without a home. The Green Wave played in the Superdome and tended to hire impressive coaches. Future USC head coach Larry Smith went 9-3 in 1979 and left for Arizona, while it took just a 6-6 campaign for Mack Brown to get the North Carolina job.

Tommy Bowden needed only two seasons to go from 2-9 to 12-0 in the 1990s. Tulane went unbeaten in 1998, Bowden (and offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez) left, and the Green Wave would bowl just once in the next 14 years.

Tulane has long had an identity crisis. Admissions standards have made things tricky, and program support has waxed and waned; having an off-campus stadium certainly didn't help.

At the least, Tulane is trying to get its act together. That it made a nice hire in turnaround artist Willie Fritz made sense, but it also opened a lovely on-campus stadium, the unique Yulman Stadium, in 2014. It joined what was supposed to be the Big East (and became the AAC) around the same time. It is following the script you’re supposed to follow when you’re a metro-area school trying to generate excitement.

Now there’s one step remaining: win. Curtis Johnson couldn’t do it; he went 7-6 in 2013 thanks to an awesome, transfer-reliant defense, but in three other seasons, went 8-28. And in Fritz’s first season, the Green Wave went 4-8.

Fritz doesn’t mind first-year resets, but he’s usually found his groove by year two.

  • In his second year at Blinn College, his Buccaneers won the NJCAA national title.
  • In his second year at Central Missouri, the Mules went from 5-6 to 8-3.
  • In his second year at Sam Houston State, the Bearkats went from 6-5 to 14-1.
  • And in his second year at Georgia Southern, the Eagles made their first bowl in their first bowl-eligible season.

Tulane certainly brings back lots of important pieces. That’s the plus of a youth movement — youth turns into experience. Fritz played a freshman and a sophomore at quarterback, included three freshmen and a sophomore in the receiving corps, and handed freshmen and sophomores 30 starts on the offensive line.

They’re all sophomores and juniors now. Meanwhile, the defense, which improved dramatically in Jack Curtis’ first year in charge, is made mostly of juniors and seniors.

Tulane is and will remain a hard job. That is the case for any team that has stricter admission standards than its conference mates and minimal recent success. But Fritz has a track record; we’ll just see if it’s stronger than Tulane’s.


2016 in review

2016 Tulane statistical profile.

Fritz’s calling card has been a modernized option, one that runs the ball as much as anyone but does so out of spread sets. With the right personnel, it is devastating.

When you take over at a new job, however, you might not start out with the right personnel. And when you take a job at a school that hasn’t ranked better than 112th in Off. S&P+ since 2010, you almost certainly don’t.

Tulane’s 2016 team had what I’ll politely call a consistent offense. It was consistently bad, and the defense stopped being able to keep the Green Wave in games.

  • First 6 games (3-3): Avg. percentile performance: 39% (32% offense, 63% defense) | Avg. yards per play: Tulane 4.9, Opp 4.8 (plus-0.1)
  • Last 6 games (1-5): Avg. percentile performance: 31% (33% offense, 45% defense) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 6.0, Tulane 4.8 (minus-1.2)

Tulane averaged 7.1 yards per play against Southern U. in Week 2 but otherwise never topped the national average of 5.8. The defense showed major promise but couldn’t keep the starters on the field. Only about half of its regulars lasted all 12 games, and depth issues in the back caught up.

Tulane held opponents to just a 54 percent completion rate but over the second half of the season allowed 14.3 yards per completion. The big plays added up, and after allowing just one opponent to score more than 24 points in the first six games, Tulane allowed five in a row to do so. There were still some competitive moments — a 35-31 loss to SMU, a 30-18 loss at Houston — but Tulane wore out.


Offense

Tulane offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

The Fritz-Doug Ruse relationship has been immensely fruitful. Ruse, former offensive coordinator at Arkansas State and Western Illinois, joined Fritz at Sam Houston State in 2012, and the two found they were kindred spirits.

In two years at SHSU, the Fritz-Ruse offense averaged 40.6 points per game and 6.4 yards per play. In two proceeding years at Georgia Southern, the Eagles averaged 37.8 points per game and 6.9 yards per play. They inherited perfect option personnel from Jeff Monken at GASO and utilized it perfectly.

The personnel they inherited at Tulane: less perfect. Sophomore quarterback Glen Cuiellette averaged just 3.3 yards per carry (not including sacks) and 4.7 yards per pass attempt. Freshman backup Johnathan Brantley got some playing time and averaged 5.3 yards per carry; he also gained 24 net yards in 24 pass attempts.

The result: an efficiency-based, run-heavy offense that was inefficient and couldn’t run.

Tulane offensive efficiency & explosiveness

There’s no guarantee the quarterback will be any better this fall, but at least familiarity won’t be as much of an issue. Cuiellette and Brantley are entering their second year in the system, and they’re getting added competition from JUCO transfer Jonathan Banks. At the least, choosing from three semi-experienced options is better than choosing from two inexperienced ones.

NCAA Football: Tulane at Houston
Dontrell Hilliard
Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

It won’t hurt that the rest of the offense should be in decent shape this time. Senior running back Dontrell Hilliard was a bright spot last year, averaging 5.6 yards per carry and coming on strong in the middle of the year.

Hilliard rushed 25 times for 235 yards against Tulsa and SMU and gave the Green Wave a boost they otherwise lacked down the stretch. And while Josh Rounds and Lazedrick Thompson (combined: 1,264 yards, 6.0 per carry) are gone, between senior Sherman Badie, converted quarterback Darius Bradwell, redshirt freshman Miles Strickland, and freshman Stephon Huderson, a couple of decent options should emerge. And they’ll be running behind a line that features four sophomores and juniors with starting experience, plus JUCO transfer Dominique Briggs and Miami transfer Hunter Knighton.

The receiving corps at least has more experience. Junior-to-be Terren Encalade was Tulane’s “leading” receiver, but he caught just 36 of 74 passes out of the slot and produced a 35 percent success rate, about 10 to 15 percent lower than you’d like to see from a slot receiver. Meanwhile, three freshmen were targeted at least 10 times, but they were almost completely unproductive. Darnell Mooney caught 24 of 56 passes and averaged just 4.8 yards per target (he had seven catches for 63 against Houston), while backups Chris Johnson and D.J. Owens combined two catch two of 24 passes for the season, an almost unfathomably bad catch rate.

At 6’2 and 215 pounds, JUCO transfer Jabril Clewis will give the receiving corps a bit of extra size, and mid-three-star redshirt freshman Jacob Robertson Jr. could theoretically give the Tulane QB of choice a decent deep option. But this unit is still mostly unproven. So, too, are the quarterbacks. And it goes without saying that Tulane’s offensive ceiling is limited until Fritz, Ruse, and company get that position figured out.

NCAA Football: Tulane at Connecticut
Glen Cuiellette
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

Tulane defensive radar

That Curtis was able to get the defense rolling more quickly than the offense made perfect sense. Curtis Johnson put a couple of awesome defenses on the field during his four-year Tulane tenure; the Green Wave ranked 18th in Def. S&P+ in 2013 and held on for 45th in 2014. They collapsed in 2015, but Curtis inherited some solid pieces and figured out what to do with them, at least for half a season. And because of injury and attrition, the backups got decent minutes as well.

The front seven has to replace a couple of stars in linebacker Nico Marley (14 tackles for loss) and tackle Tanzel Smart (18.5). That hurts, but it’s almost literally all the Green Wave lose. Eight starters are back, as are 10 second-stringers. And while Fritz felt the need to bring in JUCOs at quarterback, receiver, and offensive line, he brought in none for the defense. There was no need.

Tulane was brilliant at forcing passing downs in 2016. The Green Wave were aggressive against the pass and almost completely prevented big runs. If you were patient, you could move the ball on the ground, but Tulane still ranked 25th in opponent-adjusted Standard Downs S&P+.

Their Passing Downs S&P+ ranking: 93rd. A mediocre pass rush (77th in passing downs sack rate) led to Curtis taking fewer chances with his secondary in those situation, and the result was an opponent passer rating that went from 116.4 on first downs to 130.4 on third.

NCAA Football: Duke at Tulane
Ade Aruna
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The pass rush was basically limited to four options: Smart (5.5 sacks), Ade Aruna (5), Marley (3), and tackle Sean Wilson (3). Aruna and Wilson are back, and former backups like tackle Eldrick Washington and end Quinlan Carroll have shown decent attacking potential.

If the defensive front can generate a bit more pressure, then Curtis could get creative in how he uses other attacking pieces like linebacker Zachery Harris and safeties Jarrod Franklin (who could be dynamite at the nickel back position this year) and Roderic Teamer. And if they’re creating havoc, corners Donnie Lewis Jr. and Parry Nickerson (combined in 2016: six interceptions, 18 breakups) could create even more.

The trajectory of this defense is pretty obvious. The line is a bit senior-heavy, and Franklin and Nickerson each have only one year of eligibility left as well. But there are lots of exciting juniors and quite a few intriguing redshirt freshmen, from three-stars De’Andre Williams and Deion Rainey on the line to corner Tre Jackson in the back. The major question is simply, how much longer will the defense have to carry such a heavy load?

Louisiana Lafayette v Tulane
Roderic Teamer (38) and Donnie Lewis Jr. (21)
Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Special Teams

Good news: almost everyone is back from last year’s special teams unit, and the one guy the Green Wave have to replace (kicker Andrew DiRocco) was maybe their least effective.

Bad news: nobody else was particularly effective either. Tulane ranked 117th in Special Teams S&P+, and while DiRocco indeed missed a couple of shorter kicks, Zachary Block’s punts and kickoffs were too frequently returnable, Dontrell Hilliard didn’t produce much in punt returns, and Sherman Badie was drastically all-or-nothing in kick returns. But Badie’s “alls” were pretty impressive, at least.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep Grambling State NR 14.0 79%
9-Sep at Navy 71 -9.5 29%
16-Sep at Oklahoma 5 -33.4 3%
23-Sep Army 102 4.4 60%
7-Oct Tulsa 77 -3.1 43%
14-Oct at Florida International 104 -0.2 50%
21-Oct South Florida 56 -9.1 30%
27-Oct at Memphis 61 -13.6 22%
4-Nov Cincinnati 75 -3.3 42%
11-Nov at East Carolina 100 -1.3 47%
18-Nov Houston 49 -10.0 28%
25-Nov at SMU 81 -5.7 37%
Projected S&P+ Rk 94
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 120 / 47
Projected wins 4.7
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -10.2 (112)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 93 / 89
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 9 / 1.2
2016 TO Luck/Game +3.3
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 80% (81%, 80%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 5.0 (-1.0)

There are two different histories at work, and they color our perceptions of Tulane.

Fritz’s history all but guarantees second-year success, and his second-year squad brings plenty of experience to the table.

Tulane’s own history, though, suggests a constantly uphill battle. The Green Wave have finished with a winning record just once in 14 years; it did happen in Curtis Johnson’s second year, I guess, so there’s that.

The numbers don’t care about narratives, but they, too, hint at second-year progress. S&P+ projects Tulane 94th overall — 120th on offense, 47th on defense — and says the Green Wave’s most likely record is about 5-7. That’s not the breakthrough Fritz is used to, but it would be something.

There will be plenty of tossups. Tulane is given between a 37 and 60 percent chance of winning in six games, with one likely win and five likely losses. The Wave could again be around 3-3 midseason, but progress and tossups will determine whether they’re fighting for a bowl, or whether this is Fritz’s first second-year misstep in quite a while.


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