Green Wave surveying final season with C-USA

Associated Press photo by Tim SharpTulane football coach Curtis Johnson speaks with a reporter at the Conference USA media day Wednesday in Irving, Texas.
Associated Press photo by Tim SharpTulane football coach Curtis Johnson speaks with a reporter at the Conference USA media day Wednesday in Irving, Texas.

IRVING, Texas — There is a new stadium, new conference, more experience and guarded optimism for Tulane football in 2013 and in ’14 with various changes.

That’s why the Conference USA Media Day on Wednesday took on a bit of a surreal atmosphere for coach Curtis Johnson, All-America kicker Cairo Santos and the Green Wave.

Tulane is almost halfway finished with on-campus Yulman Stadium. The Green Wave will leave C-USA in 2014 for the new American Athletic Conference.

“You know, last year, I looked at the coaches from SMU, Houston and Memphis (all in the American Athletic this fall) and said I didn’t want to be in that situation,” Johnson said. “Now here I am. It was a business decision, and I’m not part of that final process, but we’re going to do the best we can to make it a memorable last year in Conference USA.”

Santos echoed those sentiments but added a personal goal: his first bowl appearance. The senior came from Brasilia, Brazil, as a high school foreign exchange student to St. Augustine, Fla.

“A bowl would be nice,” said Santos, who won the 2012 Lou Groza National Place-kicking Award and made all 21 of his field goal tries. “The seniors have looked for this for a long time, and we would like to extend our careers.”

Both Johnson and Santos took realistic glances at Tulane’s schedule and the Wave’s young returnees and looked for some silver linings.

“We played ULM last year,” Johnson began, “and they put 65 points on us. Then we beat SMU. When you play as many 17- to 18-year-olds as we did last year, it’s like kids coming from the senior prom going against 21-year-old seniors who are married. You can’t account for that experience difference.

“We have had some good recruiting years,” he said. “And the new stadium and atmosphere on campus have helped. I can take recruits and their parents outside my office and show them what the future of Tulane football is. We know Louisiana is our recruiting base, but we play teams from Texas and Florida and realize what great high school coaching they have in those two states.”

Santos is just as enthused.

“Hey, Cairo was tugging on my arm every time we got inside the 50-yard line last year,” Johnson quipped. “He kept telling me ‘coach, I can make it from here.’ You have to like that kind of confidence, and he is a real ambassador for Tulane football wherever he goes.”

Johnson also likes the fact that he will have a few more offensive and defensive weapons in the Green Wave arsenal to help improve upon a 2-10 overall mark and C-USA wins over SMU and UAB in 2012.

“We have some more depth in the defensive line and secondary,” Johnson said.

“Ryan Grant is coming off nearly 1,200 yards (1,149) receiving from last season, and we have three players really competing for the starting quarterback job.”

Redshirt freshman Devin Powell of Perry Walker, Nick Montana (son of Pro Football Hall of Famer and Notre Dame standout Joe Montana) of San Francisco, and Tanner Lee of Destrehan Jesuit are the quarterback contenders. Johnson is waiting until practice begins and possibly game week to name the starter.

Johnson also likes the potential of freshman defensive tackles Eric Bell of West St. John and Tanzel Smart of Scotlandville.

“Those two guys can really move around,” Johnson said. “And they are ready to push players like Corey Redwine and some of the young guys on the defensive front. It will be so much better to have depth at that position. Last year, we had three defensive tackles get injured on three consecutive plays. I had this look of panic on the sideline, and I guess I need to work on my Tom Landry face to keep the players and coaches calm in these situations.”

The popular Johnson can look back on his first season as a head coach and take the many lessons learned and apply them to Tulane’s fluid program over the next two years.