Tulane senior cornerback Jordan Sullen has one more chance to provide the happy ending former coach Bob Toledo always expected from him.
Less than a year after Sullen moved from wide receiver, Toledo talked him up in the spring of 2011 as an NFL-caliber cover guy who only needed experience.
“He’ll make some mistakes, but he’s got outstanding size and talent,” Toledo said then. “He has unlimited potential.”
Sullen certainly made the mistakes, both on and off the field. His rawness at cornerback led to an up-and-down performance as a first-time starter in Toledo’s final season. Academic issues and another unspecified violation (“wrong place, wrong time,” he said) forced him to drop out of school in the spring of 2012 after new coach Curtis Johnson arrived.
Size and talent? Back from a one-year exile, he is three pounds heavier than he was before at 6-foot, 200 pounds and as supremely fit as he was when he left.
The potential? A week before the season opener against Jackson State, Sullen is practicing with the first-team defense ahead of returning starter Jordan Batiste at cornerback, one of Tulane’s deepest spots. His new coaches love him. He can’t wait to justify his own perseverance.
“I’ve worked my tail off, and like they always say, you get out of it what you put into it,” Sullen said. “I’ve stayed in my coaches’ office talking to them and trying to perfect my craft and technique. Obviously it has all paid off, but I don’t want to get complacent about it. First team can go to second team any day.”
Sullen learned the hard way, falling from first team at the end of 2011 to not in school early in the spring semester of 2012. It was a huge comedown for a guy who earned the Leadership Award at Karr High School in New Orleans and also was a member of the National Honor Society.
Unlike other players in his situation, he did not give up, and neither did the people close to him.
The son of Tulane Athletic Director Rick Dickson, Doug Dickson, helped him get a job as a server and occasional bartender at The Columns Hotel on St. Charles Avenue. He worked out at Final Fitness in Harahan to make sure he remained in tip-top shape. He stayed in contact with Rick Dickson, who reassured him he could get back into Tulane if he did the right things.
Spurning offers to transfer or play lower-level college football, he attended Tulane home games last year and supported the team from the front row.
“I’m not going to lie,” he said. “There were times when I didn’t think I would be back. For a while, I just tried to focus on getting myself a job and keeping some money in my pocket. Then, as time went on, I noticed this (Tulane) is my family. There’s no reason I should have to hide from these guys or anything. That’s when I began to come to the games. I’d still go party with them win, lose or draw, and I talked to these guys all the time.”
When he regained his scholarship in January, Johnson and his staff welcomed him with open arms.
“For him to stay in shape and keep his mind focused on football after a year away was really very impressive,” said defensive backs coach Jason Rollins, who recruited Sullen to Tulane as a Toledo assistant in 2009 and is the lone holdover from that staff. “He took his frustrations out on his workouts. Every time he felt down and depressed, he went and lifted and ran, and it showed when he came back.”
Sullen’s numbers in 2011 (42 tackles, 10 breakups, zero interceptions) were remarkably similar to Batiste’s last year (41 tackles, eight breakups, one interception). The primary separator between them is size — Batiste is listed at 5-8, 169 pounds.
After wiping off the rust in the spring, Sullen has capitalized on that advantage in preseason practice. While most cornerbacks try to cut guys down with low tackles, Sullen prefers to take on blocks and meet ball carriers head-on.
“He’s playing well,” Johnson said. “He’s very physical. He’s doing what we ask him to do, and I like physical guys.”
Sullen’s longtime best friend, former Karr and Tulane teammate Shakiel Smith, graduated last year. Sullen is anything but a loner, though. He has become the spiritual leader of the secondary, lending advice to the younger, talented players around him.
Three years ago, Sullen adjusted well to cornerback after playing offense his whole life. He realized patience was pivotal as he learned to run backward instead of forward.
That patience has paid off again. He could have gone in 100 different directions after losing his scholarship, but he chose the tough path of atoning for his mistakes.
A huge senior season would make the journey worth every bump along the way.
“I’ve learned so much about myself,” Sullen said. “I’ve learned a lot about my teammate. I’ve learned a lot about perseverance. I’ve just learned to cherish the moments that you have because it can be taken away from you every day.”
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