NEW ORLEANS — There’s a difference between teaching and coaching. It’s similar to what differentiates learning from preparing.
While the words might have similar meanings, Tulane football coach Curtis Johnson has experienced both and knows they aren’t identical. Starting three quarterbacks in five games caused Johnson’s staff to spend most of its practice time focusing on its own personnel and playbook, rather than planning for an opponent.
After a shoulder injury sidelined starter Ryan Griffin midway through the second game of the season, Tulane’s progress halted. Instead of moving forward and adding to its arsenal, the Green Wave (0-5) was stuck in preseason mode trying to ingrain basic strategy over a month into the season.
Meanwhile, the Green Wave offense languished under the control of senior D.J. Ponder and freshman Devin Powell, who each started their first career game during the past three weeks, combining for just 23 total points over the span.
But Griffin’s impending return could change everything, Johnson said. The first-year coach said he expects Griffin to start against SMU at noon Saturday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, welcoming the senior’s 35 career games, 6,569 passing yards and 37 touchdowns with open arms.
“It’s our first day back (at practice), and Ryan Griffin took most of the reps (Tuesday),” Johnson said. “It was night and day. The coaches weren’t teaching everything all over again like from the start. Nothing against D.J. (Ponder). D.J. was great for us, and Powell was fantastic when he played, but everything was being taught.
“Now we finally have a guy who knows the offense, knows what he’s doing a little bit and it looked a lot better. It’s been good. The emotions have been up, the enthusiasm has been up and it looks like we’re moving in the right direction as a football team.”
Still, the Green Wave is in the midst of the FBS’ longest losing streak (15 consecutive defeats), has been outscored 212-45 this season and is ranked last nationally in several offensive statistical categories.
Tulane is the nation’s worst in terms of rushing yards per game, yards per carry, passing efficiency and total points scored.
But the return of a senior leader could have Tulane breathing new life. Johnson said Griffin’s place under center cures a litany of ills, mentioning everything from crisper substitution patterns to confidence in the playbook during his Tuesday afternoon news conference.
Without Griffin, Tulane unnecessarily burned through many of its timeouts because it had the wrong personnel in the huddle and reserve quarterbacks didn’t immediately recognize the play. Offensive guard Adam Skidmore said the Green Wave line bungled several pass protections because of a lack of defensive recognition — something Griffin typically excels in.
“There’s a difference between a soldier and a warrior,” Johnson said. “Soldiers march. Warriors fight. Griff’s been in there. He’s a fighter, and he’s been through it all. He’s been hit, got up and thrown touchdowns. He’s an experienced guy.
“He’s not going in there for the first time. He has the poise, the experience and the knowledge of the game. He’s had (32) starts, so he’s very experienced. Having a younger team with guys who haven’t played, it was like youth looking to the youth. It was just all youth looking back and forth. Now we’ve got a little bit of direction and a little bit of leadership.”
But Griffin’s presence alone doesn’t cure all of Tulane’s ills. Johnson and Skidmore said the Wave will have to advance its rushing attack and be far better than its current 0.62 yards per carry in order to gain any traction on offense.
In its 41-13 loss to Louisiana-Lafayette last Saturday, Tulane found its first glimmer of hope on the ground gaining 53 yards in 22 carries, easily surpassing its previous season high of 14 rushing yards in a 39-0 loss to Ole Miss.
While improvement may be minimal and incremental, Tulane believes it’s getting closer to claiming a victory and the discrepancy between teaching and coaching could be the difference.
“We are making strides, and I think we’re getting more aggressive,” Skidmore said. “But you really take all of our improvements with a grain of salt, because we are really going from the bottom on up. We have definitely not arrived, but things are getting better and having a quarterback with experience is only going to help us.
“In order to break through and win a game, those improvements need to keep happening but need to be even greater. I don’t see any reason why it can’t happen and why this weekend won’t be the one to snap the streak.”
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