Stronger defense, lighter schedule boost Tulane’s hopes

Early August is usually the peak of optimism for the Tulane football team before the inevitable cliff dive once the season starts. After a decade of losing, though, the Green Wave and second-year coach Curtis Johnson are seeing tangible signs that their talk of a turnaround won’t get hit with a reality check in September.

Specifically, they can point to the heft on their defensive front seven and the lack of heft on the schedule in revamped Conference USA.

“As ultra-competitive as I am, I’ll probably be disappointed with (just) six wins,” Johnson said Monday at Media Day. “We better get more than six this year. We’ve added some pieces to the puzzle, and hopefully by the end of the year, we’ll have this thing completed and we’ll be holding up a (Conference USA) trophy.”

Six wins would make Tulane bowl eligible for the first time since 2002. The Green Wave has not won more than four since Hurricane Katrina and has gone 4-21 in a turbulent past two seasons bridging the end of Bob Toledo’s tenure and the start of Johnson’s.

With eight starters returning on offense and defense, Johnson expects different results.

“I’d like to see 12 wins this year, but if we get to a bowl game, which I hope and pray we are, it would be a step in the right direction,” he said. “It’s leading to the foundation of the program that we want to set here.”

That foundation got bigger with the transfer of a pair of former SEC players. Tyler Gilbert (6-feet-3, 244 pounds), a junior college transfer who played linebacker for Arkansas two years ago, is getting reps at defensive end. Defensive tackle Chris Davenport, a 6-4, 334-pound five-star recruit who played sparingly in four years at LSU, will attend graduate school while anchoring the line.

“It’s like having a big Chevy Suburban right in the middle of the defense,” co-defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Jon Sumrall said. “He takes up a lot of space.”

The transfers give Tulane 15 defensive linemen on scholarship a year after Sumrall recalled beginning spring practice with seven. The depth-shy, size-challenged Wave ranked 114th nationally out of 120 FBS teams in rushing defense, allowing an average of 222.9 yards on 5.1 yards per carry.

“We couldn’t even do drills,” Sumrall said. “Now we’ve got 14 or 15 out there and could run like four drills. (Johnson) has been fantastic about it. He’s a wide receiver guy, but he gives me more opportunities to bring in defensive linemen than you would ever imagine.”

Part of Johnson’s line-centric philosophy is preparing for the increased competition in the American Athletic Conference, which Tulane will join next year. That league features former Big East teams Cincinnati, Connecticut and South Florida along with former Conference USA heavyweights Houston and Central Florida.

He hopes to reap the benefits this season in a diminished C-USA, which brings Louisiana Tech, North Texas, Florida Atlantic and Texas-San Antonio to the schedule. Throw in the first two games against Jackson State of the lower-level FCS along with FBS upstart South Alabama, and seven of Tulane’s foes are ranked below the Wave in analyst Phil Steele’s preseason rankings.

“I don’t feel like the other teams respect us,” said senior wide receiver Ryan Grant, a preseason first-team All-Conference USA selection. “A lot has changed around me over the years with a new coaching staff and better players. The younger guys are the better players on the team. We’re going to have a really good year.”

Some of the talk Monday echoed comments of the past, with players preaching better chemistry, a better work ethic and improvement in the weight room over the summer. Two years ago, former Wave starting quarterback Ryan Griffin oozed positivity at the start of preseason practice.

“We have more returning starters, more people that have played valuable minutes and more people that are truly invested in the program from top to bottom,” he said then. “That’s true whether it is fifth-year seniors who are starting or guys who are not. We have great people on this team. We have very lofty expectations.”

Those expectations turned into expectorations by October, when Toledo was fired in the middle of a 2-11 season.

The Wave had no chance in Johnson’s first year, when Conference USA preseason Defensive Player of the Year Trent Mackey was arrested for armed robbery (and later acquitted) before the season, starting safety Devon Walker suffered a horrifying cervical spine fracture in the third game and Griffin missed three games with a shoulder injury.

“We had a lot of adversity last year, but it made us stronger as a group,” said senior running back Orleans Darkwa, who was hampered in 2012 by a severe high-ankle sprain he suffered in the preseason. “If we just stay injury-free and follow the coaches’ lead, we’ll be good.”