Tulane’s Darion Monroe showing maturity

Rarely did a news conference pass without Tulane football coach Curtis Johnson praising the work of Darion Monroe in 2012.

Monroe started 12 games for the Green Wave last year, led the team with 96 tackles and earned his way on to Conference USA’s All-Freshman team, despite being thrust from cornerback to safety three games into the season after Devon Walker’s catastrophic spinal injury.

Still, all of Johnson’s adoration couldn’t make up for a pair of zeros on Monroe’s final stat sheet. He finished the season without recording a single interception or pass break-up.

“All of the negatives I hear about me are that I don’t get my hands on the ball enough, and I know that,” Monroe said. “I keep hearing about how I’m not a ball hawk, and that’s because I didn’t get those picks.”

While part of it can be pinned on Monroe’s inexperience at the position — he starred as a high school quarterback at East St. John — he also points to the inexperience that surrounded him in the defensive backfield. Fellow freshman cornerbacks Jordan Batiste and Lorenzo Doss were growing into their positions, leaving Monroe skittish to risk touchdowns for turnovers.

So Monroe settled in as a last line of defense for most the season, providing cornerbacks with support and keeping plays in front of him as Tulane sputtered to a 2-10 record with a passing defense ranked No. 95 in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Now, as Batiste, Doss and former starter Jordan Sullen — who was suspended for the entire 2012 season — all return for this season, Monroe can already sense the increased freedom.

“Those three guys locking up people this year will let me do a lot more on the ball,” Monroe said. “Last year, I was just trying to make sure we didn’t give up 50-yard touchdowns because they were as young as me. But this year, they are all veterans now, and I know I can take a few more risks because they can cover guys by themselves and don’t need me back there. I can help them more by scaring quarterbacks and then making plays on the ball.”

Less than a week into preseason camp, Monroe’s newfound aggression is already on display, secondary coach Jason Rollins said.

“If you just watch us practice for the past few days, you’ll already see him having his hands on so many more footballs than he’s ever done before,” Rollins said. “He’s not thinking. He’s just reacting. The progress of our corners is unreal, and now he doesn’t have to run outside of the hash (markers). He can just play in the middle of the field, and it’s almost backyard ball because he can pick his spots and not worry as much about the rest.”

There’s a reason for Monroe to be confident in his teammates along the secondary. Doss earned his way onto the preseason All-Conference USA team, thanks largely to nabbing five interceptions. Batiste has 10 starts and eight pass break-ups under his belt.

The cornerbacks also believe in Monroe, who repeatedly barks signals and helps set alignments before the snap. Batiste even referred to him as the “quarterback of the secondary.”

“There is a trust there between all of us,” Batiste said. “We want to do our jobs right, because then he can play downhill and do his own thing, and he doesn’t have to do as much fussing at all of us. The guy is real smart, and he studies all day, so it’s pretty clear he knows what he’s talking about.”

After learning two new positions last season, Monroe is once again straddling a couple of positions. He’s vacillating between free safety and strong safety — although he’s listed at free safety in the latest depth chart — working in tandem with junior Sam Scofield.

But Monroe said it doesn’t matter where he ends up, as long as those zeros on his stat sheet turn into crooked numbers. It’s something Johnson said he doesn’t anticipate being a problem.

“Last year, he played a little robotic at times and was kind of not knowing what to do,” Johnson said. “I think he’s mastered the defense and spent a lot of time in the summer watching tape, so I really like the way he’s running around. And he looks natural out there.”