The season opener is closing in on Tulane coach Curtis Johnson.
Before he can lead the Green Wave into the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Aug. 29 against Jackson State, a litany of personnel decisions awaits him. While Johnson has focused fall camp on competition, rarely employing a consistent 11-man unit, his first opportunity to display the camp’s winners and losers is imminent.
“We’ve just been looking at a lot of different people in a lot of different places,” Johnson said. “I feel like our depth is better last year, pretty much everywhere, so we’ve had to take more time to judge some of these spots. You can really tell how much improvement there’s been when it’s so hard to pick some of these starters.”
The most scrutinized of those decisions has come at quarterback, where junior-college transfer Nick Montana appears to have the upper hand on returning redshirt freshman Devin Powell and true freshman Tanner Lee.
While a starter has yet to be formally named, Johnson has repeatedly praised Montana’s progress during the preseason. Montana’s speed, arm accuracy and experience lend him advantages over Lee and Powell.
This is simultaneously the easiest and most difficult position for the Green Wave offensive staff to grapple with.
Senior Ryan Grant provides Tulane a safety valve, deep threat and legitimate playmaker at wide receiver. The preseason all-Conference USA selection hasn’t slowed down during camp, becoming the favorite target of any quarterback throwing to him.
With just a pair of options at the position, the competition isn’t overwhelming. Sydie London and Matt Marfisi have drawn accolades from coaches and quarterbacks but will have to carry a heavy load.
Unlike the embarrassment of riches at running back, the offensive line has left tougher questions as Tulane hopes to improve the weakest link from last year’s team. Center and three-year starter Zach Morgan’s return from a shoulder injury helps anchor the middle of the line, but there are many guesses about who flanks him on either side.
Johnson said he’ll likely spend the first two weeks of the season rotating offensive linemen and evaluating film, trying to find a consistent five starters by the time Conference USA play rolls around in the third week.
A pair of transfers propel the most improved position on the Green Wave’s roster.
If it weren’t for offensive line, linebacker would be the position keeping Johnson up at night.
Safety Darion Monroe could only shake his head and smile when asked about the cornerbacks playing in front of him. The talent level was already high with preseason all-C-USA sophomore Lorenzo Doss and 10-game starter Jordan Batiste back in the fold and performing at a high level in the spring.
Tulane’s defensive staff hasn’t hidden its desire to crank up the interception count, and the uptick in capable single-coverage corners should pay dividends.
Kicker Cairo Santos won nearly every accolade the kicking universe offered last season. But around him, some special teams movement has taken place during practices.
Tulane expects to use a four-man rotation on kickoffs during the first few weeks of the season, hopefully narrowing to two by week three. Devon Breaux, Devin Boutte and Kedrick Banks are vying for spots, according to Johnson.
Darion Monroe has emerged as the front-runner on punt returns, a spot he held briefly last year, highlighted by his 57-yard return against Alabama-Birmingham.
Returning starter Peter Picerelli appears to have won the competition at punter.