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Willie Fritz is still an expert builder. How high can Tulane go?

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Fritz just took Tulane to its second bowl in 16 years. Now imagine what the Green Wave could do if their offense and defense actually got rolling at the same time.

NCAA Football: Tulane at Houston
Willie Fritz
Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

Fritz has built his entire career around picking programs up, fixing their hair, wiping the crud out of their eyes, buying them some new clothes, and making them look sharp again. He’s the football version of What Not To Wear or Queer Eye.

I list his accomplishments in basically every preview I write about a Fritz team, but they’re impressive, so let’s walk through the list again.

  • He inherited a Blinn Junior College team that had won five games in three years. He won two national titles.
  • He inherited a Central Missouri that hadn’t been to the Division II playoffs in three decades. He won 97 games and an MIAA championship.
  • He inherited a Sam Houston that was averaging about five wins per year, and he won 10 a year and went to two FCS championship games.
  • He inherited a Georgia Southern that had stuttered to 7-4 as it was preparing to jump to FBS, and he went 9-3 and 8-4 at the FBS level. The Eagles won the Sun Belt in their first attempt.
  • The Green Wave had one winning season in 13 years when he arrived in New Orleans, and they were coming off of back-to-back 3-9 campaigns. He’s won four, then five, then seven games over the course of three seasons.

At the macro level, it looks like yet another Fritz building job. But homing in a bit, you see just how difficult coaching can be. Fritz and Tulane have pulled off incremental success despite a lack of steadiness.

  • Their three offenses have ranked 128th, 67th, and 106th in Off. S&P+, respectively.
  • Their three defenses have ranked 66th, 108th, and 65th in Def. S&P+.

One rises, the other falls. Only the special teams unit has improved each year.

Tulane’s offensive line seemed to take a step backward last fall. Green Wave rushers didn’t lose ground a lot but found minimal running lanes either; meanwhile, the quarterbacks weren’t keeping the ball as much either, making the option game — forever a Fritz staple — more predictable and less effective.

As the offensive front was struggling, though, the defensive front was asserting itself despite significant youth. Tulane ranked 20th in rushing marginal efficiency and 24th in sack rate — a nice combination. The safety corps was one of the best in the AAC, too.

LSU transfer Justin McMillan took over for incumbent quarterback Jonathan Banks halfway through the year, and the offense improved a tad. Still, Fritz replaced coordinator and longtime assistant Doug Ruse with Memphis tight ends coach Will Hall. The former West Alabama and West Georgia head coach and UL Lafayette coordinator will be raising the tempo.

Defensively, it’s hard not to get excited. Almost everybody on the line returns, and while a couple of key DBs depart, coordinator Jack Curtis played a lot of guys back there.

Fritz skipped a step last year, improving by two games despite offensive difficulties. With S&P+ projecting four games as double-digit losses (at Auburn, at Memphis, at Temple, UCF), the Green Wave likely have to win every winnable game to again raise the win total. But we haven’t seen both the left hand (offense) and right hand (defense) getting things figured out at the same time yet. This would be an awfully dangerous team if that were to happen.

Offense

It’s strange to talk about the run game regressing when you look at the running back stats and see that Darius Bradwell and Corey Dauphine combined for 1,919 yards at 5.9 per carry. That’s awfully good. But two things dragged the Green Wave run game down:

  1. The QBs stopped running the ball. In 2017, Tulane signal callers averaged 13.9 non-sack rushes per game, and in 2018 that fell to 7.8. When you’re not running the zone read as much, when the QB isn’t as much of a presence in the run game, you’re probably not wrong-footing defenders as much, either.
  2. That 5.9 yards per carry was all-or-nothing. Tulane was 18th in rushing marginal explosiveness but only 96th in rushing marginal efficiency. Bradwell averaged seven yards per carry or greater in four games and under five in four. For Dauphine, a former Texas Tech blue-chipper, it was four of the former and five of the latter.

Tulane’s run game was dangerous but unreliable, and Banks was not a passing downs QB. He took sacks on one of every seven pass attempts, and even with McMillan taking over mid-year, Tulane still ended up 125th in passing-downs sack rate. (That the offensive tackle position was a bit of a revolving door didn’t help.)

NCAA Football: Cure Bowl-Tulane vs UL Lafayette
Darius Bradwell
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Hall has proved he will use a mobile quarterback if he’s got one — UL QBs averaged nearly 11 non-sack rushes per game in 2017, for instance. There’s a perceived injury risk to running your QBs too much, but if McMillan gets hurt, he’ll probably have a pretty good backup: Keon Howard.

A part-time Southern Miss starter in 2017, Howard doesn’t quite have McMillan’s mobility but was reasonably efficient in a quick-passing USM offense. He ended up coming to Tulane last August. Plus, redshirt freshman Christian Daniels is a former three-star recruit.

NCAA Football: Cure Bowl-Tulane vs UL Lafayette
Darnell Mooney (3) and Amare Jones (11)
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It’s safe to assume Hall will attempt to use tempo as a way of wrong-footing defenders, though, and even if McMillan doesn’t run all that often, with this skill corps, he might not need to. At RB, Bradwell and Dauphine are both back, as are junior Stephon Huderson and sophomore Amare Jones. Jones was a dynamic return man last year and could demand more touches soon. Mid-three-star freshman Tyjae Spears will get a chance to carve out a niche, too.

McMillan does lose three of last year’s top four pass targets. That’s a concern, but there’s still clear potential here. No. 1 WR Darnell Mooney is back after serving as one of the more exciting vertical receivers in the country; he averaged 20.7 yards per catch with a solid 57 percent catch rate. In Tulane’s last two wins of the regular season, he caught a combined 11 passes for 352 yards and three touchdowns. Damn.

Tulane also gets a lifeline from the grad transfer market: former Oklahoma State receiver Jalen McCleskey caught 50 passes in Stillwater in 2017 and, with his 76 percent catch rate, could serve as a nice complement to the more volatile Mooney. There’s plenty of potential among other, younger options in the receiving corps, and Huderson and Jones combined to catch 10 of 13 passes for 112 yards — they will fight it out to be the go-to third-down back.

This all seems exciting, but the line was an issue last year, and we won’t know for a while if that’s rectified.

Three of last year’s starters are gone, and while four returnees combined to occupy 29 of last year’s 65 starts, they weren’t incredibly effective, and we’ll have to see how a pair of transfers fit into the equation. Two-year starting Brown center Christian Montano comes aboard, as does 6’9 Virginia backup Ben Knutson. Throw in another former star recruit, redshirt freshman Nik Hogan, and maybe there’s a good line somewhere in that mix?

Defense

There’s nothing more exciting than a volatile, all-or-nothing defense, and that’s very much what Tulane had in 2018. The Green Wave ranked 23rd in marginal efficiency and 109th in marginal explosiveness, willing to sacrifice the occasional big gash for three-and-outs and turnover opportunities.

This worked pretty well, though when it didn’t, it bombed. Tulane gave up 49 points to Ohio State, 37 to Cincinnati, and 48 to Houston but otherwise allowed just 22.4 points per game. You can win a lot of games with that average.

East Carolina v Tulane
Patrick Johnson (34)
Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

The line was a revelation. The top three tacklers up front were sophomores, and basically every backup was a freshman, and Tulane still more than held its own. Edge rusher Patrick Johnson, now a junior, produced 16 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks, and 19.5 run stuffs (stops at or behind the line). Eight other linemen and linebackers produced 3.5 TFLs or more, too, and six of them return. Both departed players — linebacker Zachery Harris and tackle Robert Kennedy — were excellent, but there’s still strong depth here.

I’m particularly excited about the tackle position. Junior De’Andre Williams is active (he made 29.0 overall tackles, which is a lot for a nose tackle), and sophomores Jeffery Johnson and Alfred Thomas, the crown jewels of the 2018 class, both looked like potential future stars in understudy roles. Throw in sophomore ends Carlos Hatcher, Davon Wright, and Juan Monjarres (seven sacks among them), and Tulane could have one of the AAC’s best lines for years to come.

Linebackers Marvin Moody and Lawrence Graham can likely account for Harris’ absence, too.

NCAA Football: Tulane at Ohio State
Thakarius Keyes
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The front should still be active and exciting, but further defensive improvement in 2019 could depend on how well Curtis replaces safety Roderic Teamer Jr. and cornerback Donnie Lewis Jr. Teamer combined seven passes defensed with five run stuffs (a rare combo), and Lewis was one of the most active DBs in the country — his 21 passes defensed ranked fourth in FBS. He was a big reason why Tulane ranked fifth in completion rate allowed.

As I mentioned above, though, the rotation was pretty large in the back. That could pay off. Tulane still returns safeties P.J. Hall, Will Harper, Tirise Barge, and Chase Kuerschen, all of whom made at least 18.5 tackles, and while Lewis was the most active corner, they’ve still got Thakarius Keyes (12 passes defensed), Jaylon Monroe, and a potentially thrilling sophomore in Willie Langham, who was on the field long enough to make only 8.5 tackles but also broke up seven passes in that time.

Teamer and Lewis were awesome, and I don’t want to assume everyone else can make up for that lost production. But they might.

Special Teams

After a rough first season, special teams has been a Tulane stalwart. The Wave ranked 37th in Special Teams S&P+ in 2017 and 35th in 2018, and they pulled off improvement last year despite a freshman punter (Ryan Wright, who averaged 44 yards per kick and a 39-yard net) and a freshman return man (Jones, who ranked eighth in kick return efficiency and 61st on punt returns).

Senior Merek Glover returns as well after hitting 10 of 13 field goals. This should again be a strong unit.

2019 outlook

2019 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
29-Aug Florida International 88 -1.3 47%
7-Sep at Auburn 8 -32.3 3%
14-Sep Missouri State NR 17.0 84%
19-Sep Houston 73 -5.0 39%
5-Oct at Army 80 -8.3 32%
12-Oct Connecticut 129 20.0 88%
19-Oct at Memphis 26 -21.9 10%
26-Oct at Navy 118 6.6 65%
2-Nov Tulsa 95 1.3 53%
16-Nov at Temple 66 -11.8 25%
23-Nov UCF 27 -16.4 17%
30-Nov at SMU 85 -7.4 33%
Projected S&P+ Rk 98
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 112 / 75
Projected wins 5.0
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -10.6 (106)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 89
2018 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -1 / 8.7
2018 TO Luck/Game -3.7
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 56% (50%, 63%)
2018 Second-order wins (difference) 6.6 (0.4)

My initial S&P+ projections weren’t incredibly kind to Tulane — it projected the Green Wave to fall from 90th to 98th overall, losing a bit of ground on both offense and defense and winning an average of about five games.

Those projections didn’t take transfers into account, though. Keon Howard will project to make up for Banks’ lost production, and bringing in Jalen McCleskey is like returning your No. 2 receiver. That’ll help at least a bit when projections are updated, and with so many exciting youngsters on the line and in the secondary, I give the defense a good shot to at least match last year’s numbers.

After three years of improving the win total, this year might be about holding steady. Whether Tulane is a top-100 team or more like top-80, there are still three top-30 teams on the schedule, plus visits to Temple, Army, and SMU and home games against Houston and FIU. Those are eight games that a pretty decent team could lose.

The upside here is immense, but Tulane hasn’t gone to back-to-back bowls since 1979-80 — simply reaching six wins again and ending that 40-year streak wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.

Team preview stats

All 2019 preview data to date.