Pop quiz: You are a relatively experienced assistant football coach, and you get what you feel is a big break of sorts -- you are hired as the head coach of a mostly moribund FBS program. Sure, it could end up killing your resume, but hey, you're an optimist. You can succeed where the last two guys did not. You know this hasn't been a good team for a while, but you have hope because…
A) The roster has quite a bit of experience on it. You will be starting quite a few juniors and seniors in your first season on the job. With solid on-field leadership, you feel your concepts will more quickly take hold.
B) The roster is incredibly thin. So many guys left either because of the last coach or because the last coach was fired. You are guaranteed to struggle in your first year, but you can, as quickly as possible, bring your own guys in and begin building the program that you envisioned from scratch.
C) The roster has quite a few underachievers on it, guys who had pretty good recruiting rankings in high school but have never put it together. You feel you can reach these guys and turn them into great players.
D) The roster has quite a few OVERachievers on it, guys who were lucky to have received even a two-star rating from Rivals, but guys you know will max themselves out for you from an effort perspective.
E) Some combination of A-B and C-D (so, A & C, A & D, B & C, or B & D). Specify in comments.
We are not new Tulane coach Curtis Johnson, so we don't know what his answer to this question would be. But he inherited a pretty clear "A & C" situation when he agreed to become Tulane's 39th head coach in December. He inherits a roster littered with juniors, seniors and former three-star recruits. That they have underachieved mightily -- 11 wins in four seasons, 21 in seven -- could mean different things depending on the perspective. It is quite possible that either their recruiting rankings were bunk to begin with or their level of underachievement could remain unchanged no matter the coach. Or, it could mean that Johnson's first Tulane squad is full of untapped potential and possible leadership candidates. New coaches are typically glass-half-full guys, so I'm pretty sure where Johnson's head resides right now. We'll have to wait until September to find out where the truth lies.
Here's what I said about Tulane in a rather rambling effort last April:
Memory is a funny thing. Back in the 1980s, when men were men, haircuts were haircuts, and tearaway jerseys made tackling Herschel Walker hilariously impossible, we couldn't be quite as picky regarding what college football games we wanted to watch. If there was one on, there probably weren't 17 others to choose from. Thus, while I cannot remember probably half of the games I watched last season, I remember watching every second of the 1987 Independence Bowl between Washington and Tulane and rooting passionately for the Green Wave because a) I was a guilty liberal even early in life, putting my heart on the line for every underdog I could find, and b) Tulane's colors, logo, etc., were just so damn unique and cool. I recall thinking something to the effect of, "An up-and-coming program in New Orleans? This team is going to be huge!" Naturally, I was correct. Fifty years too late. (I also adopted the Pittsburgh Pirates 10 years too late and the Miami Dolphins 15 years too late. Does that make me an old soul?)
Alas, Tulane is now another lost 1930s power who, unlike Fordham, Minnesota or St. Mary's, actually still fields a FBS team. Or they try to, anyway. The undefeated season of 1998 was quite a while ago now, and though Bob Toledo is likable and hard-working ... the results just haven't been there. […]
Be it because of the location, the Katrina damage, the color scheme, the '87 Independence Bowl ... it's easy to find reasons to root for Tulane, and I guess it would be somewhat poetic if a back named Orleans [Darkwa] led them to just their third bowl since Mack Brown left in the 1980s.
I said "poetic." I didn't say "likely."
Fate does not often worry about poetry. Bob Toledo, who had seen Tulane through post-Katrina devastation in his tenure, just could never get on the right side of the win-loss column, and no matter how good a person you may be, that eventually matters. Injuries and underachievement wrecked Tulane in 2011, and he resigned after seven games. His final record at Tulane: 15-40.
Toledo's final Green Wave squad was like most of the rest: attacking without conscience (or effect) on defense, passing with no receivers on offense, bad in the trenches. Tulane had a couple of interesting running backs and an active back seven, but it just didn't matter. Interim coach Mark Hutson oversaw Tulane's final five games (all losses), and Johnson was hired in December.
Johnson is an intriguing hire. When you are a mid-major school (as I said about the MAC over the last couple of weeks), your options are to typically hire an up-and-comer and hope he stays long enough to win, or hire a coach who most likely failed at a major-conference level and is on his way down. Johnson, meanwhile, is an odd combination of experienced and up-and-coming. At 50 years old, the New Orleans native racked up 18 years of NCAA assistant coaching experience as mostly receivers coach and recruiting star -- he recruited Marshall Faulk to San Diego State, Ed Reed to Miami -- and spent the last six years as Sean Payton's receivers coach. He is extremely specialized in his experience (he has been a receivers coach for 25 years), but he is a New Orleans guy, and he is a good recruiter. There is nothing on his resume to suggest he can lead a team or turn underachievers into overachievers, but … there is also nothing to suggest he cannot. He is incredibly enthusiastic, and that will buy him quite a bit of benefit-of-the-doubt. But as with Toledo, results will eventually matter.
When you have no head coaching experience -- and for that matter, you do not even have coordinator experience -- you do not have any direct tendencies from which to draw conclusions. When it comes to Johnson and offensive coordinator Eric Price, however, they made it easy for us: "It's the Saints offense." That means spreading you right and left, hitting you with as many screens and quick passes as you'll let them try, finding the tight end (if there is one to find) and, once you're stretched as far as you can horizontally, prodding you with the run and the deeper passes.
In theory, this would mesh well with Tulane's personnel, most of which was recruited to a pass-happy offense. Plus, the receiving corps returns almost entirely intact from last year, another good thing. The problem: the Tulane passing game was terrible last year, no matter how heavily they leaned on it. Quarterback Ryan Griffin had his moments -- 24-for-30 for 320 yards and two touchdowns versus Syracuse, 31-for-50 for 377 and a touchdown versus Memphis -- but for the most part, it was a struggle for the second-year starter. In the 10 games not against Syracuse or Memphis, he completed just 55 percent of his passes and threw eight touchdowns. His top three receivers caught a combined 50 percent of their passes, which just won't get it done in any offense that doesn't run the flexbone. For better or worse, everybody of any consequence is back. Justyn Shackleford became the default No. 1 receiver as a three-star freshman last year, primarily because junior Ryan Grant (515 receiving yards in 2010) was lost for the season to a sports hernia. Grant is back and will join two three-star targets -- Shackleford and junior Wilson Van Hooser. Three-star freshman Lorenzo Doss will join the mix this fall, as could Van Hooser's brother, Walker (who evidently goes by Fudge), if he doesn't end up a quarterback.
If there is a silver lining with this personnel, it's that the running backs are already used to being effective members of the receiving corps. Orleans Darkwa and Robert Kelley combined to catch 53 of 71 passes for 475 yards in 2011; they should get at least that many targets this fall. It's good that they figured out how to contribute somehow, as, in the running game, they neither found many holes through which to run nor took advantage of the ones they had. Both three-star recruits, Darkwa and Kelley combined to average 4.4 yards per carry, but against the defenses they faced, that was quite mediocre. The line had something to do with that, but according to their combined Adj. POE of minus-7.8, they were a little over a touchdown worse than the average rusher given their carries and blocking.
Darkwa has shown quite a bit of potential in his two years -- in the last 18 games, he has broken 100 yards seven times (five in 2010). And in defensive back-turned-running back Derrick Strozier, he might now have a change-of-pace back to complement him. But like everybody else on the Tulane offense, he struggled in 2011. And he is not guaranteed to receive any better blocking in 2012 -- of the six players with starting experience on last year's line, four are gone, leaving just two-year starters Zach Morgan (left guard) and Eric Jones (right tackle) with any major experience. When the line is this iffy, turnover isn't, in and of itself, a bad thing. Still, there's nothing saying last year's second-stringers will perform any better.
Johnson went with co-coordinators on the defensive side of the ball. First, you've got Tulane alumnus and long-time NFL assistant coach Lionel Washington, who was last seen coaching defensive backs for Marty Schottenheimer's Virginia Destroyers in the UFL. (Okay, "seen" may not be the right word to use for the UFL.) Next, you've got Jon Sumrall, an intriguing 29-year old who was coordinator for a San Diego Torreros defense that allowed just 23.6 points per game and recorded 40 sacks last year. It appears he is a bit of an attacking mind, and he should find things to like about a defense that managed to rank a healthy 39th in Adj. Sack Rate (and an awful 103rd in Adj. Line Yards). For all their flaws (and they had plenty), Tulane did end up with seven players recording at least 3.5 tackles for loss, and six return.
The strength of the Tulane defense will be the linebacking corps. Middle linebacker Trent Mackey racked up tackles at an absurd rate in 2011 -- his 120.5 tackles accounted for 16.6 percent of the team's total, which is, I believe, the highest percentage I have come across to date -- but he actually made PLAYS, too, logging 14 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks and an interception. The "tackling machine" linebacker is typically overrated because of the gaudy tackle numbers, but with Mackey playing so reliably in the middle, Tulane will be able to attack with players like outside linebackers Darryl Farley and Matthew Bailey (combined: 11.5 tackles for loss, four passes broken up in 2011) and part-time nickel back Dominique Robertson (4.5 tackles for loss, three forced fumbles). Plus, end Austin Jacks had 5.5 tackles for loss last season and has looked good this spring.
That's the good news. The bad news: only three of the top seven linemen return from a line that got pushed around horribly last year. As with the offensive line, you can only mourn losses so much when the players are not very good, but they were still apparently better than the second-stringers. Of the three defensive tackles who logged at least 11.0 tackles in 2011, only one (former three-star recruit Julius Warmsley) returns.
If Tulane is still getting pushed around up front, then it will minimize the effect of what really could be a sharp back seven. A secondary that returns nine of its top 11 (including four of five players who defended at least three passes), also welcomes perhaps the two most interesting freshmen on the team: FOUR-STAR signee (and one-time Texas A&M commit) Darion Monroe and three-star, early-enrollee Jordan Batiste, who had a lovely first spring. Mackey, Farley, Jacks and the top two defensive backs (safety Shakiel Smith and corner Ryan Travis) are all seniors, but this defense could get better in the coming years, especially if Johnson continues to recruit well.
Tulane plays six teams projected to rank 90th or worse in 2012, three at home. It probably isn't too much for Tulane fans, then, to expect somewhere in the neighborhood of three to four wins this fall. That isn't a high bar by any means, but when you haven't finished with better than four wins since 2004, it kind of is.
Tulane aimed high with the hire of Curtis Johnson. His lack of head coaching experience (not to mention a lack of recent college experience) could backfire on him and his Green Wave, but when you haven't finished better than 96th in F/+ ratings over the last seven years, and when your average finish is 108th, you almost don't have a choice but to take chances. What's the worst that could happen … your team could stink?
The downside to Johnson's hiring is obvious, but so is the upside. He is a charismatic, energetic presence, and before heading to the NFL, he was known as an outstanding recruiter, especially in the New Orleans area. His staff is a combination of old hands and charismatic, aggressive youngsters, and if he can both bring former three-star recruits out of their shell and continue to bring in new ones (preferably some linemen), then Tulane could have a much higher ceiling, and soon. Unfortunately, "soon" probably doesn't include 2012. The Green Wave should be infinitely more interesting in 2012, but the wins probably won't come until 2013 at the earliest.