Backs, D-line give Tulane hope

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.”

Quarterbacks

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.

Still, Johnson and offensive coordinator Eric Price said they expect to play multiple quarterbacks against both Jackson State and South Alabama.

Running backs

This is simultaneously the easiest and most difficult position for the Green Wave offensive staff to grapple with.

On one hand, Orleans Darkwa provides a luxury as a three-year starter and Doak Walker Award candidate who is capable of productively toting the ball 30 times per game. Lengthy rehab and rest has allowed him to regain the form that anchored the Green Wave rushing attack via 1,849 yards during his freshman and sophomore seasons before being hampered by an ankle injury before last season.

Then things get complicated. Powerful sophomore Lazedrick Thompson emerged by chewing up big gains in scrimmages, as did junior Robert Kelley. Meanwhile, Josh Rounds displayed proficiency in getting to the edge, while fellow speedster Sherman Badie battled an ankle injury.

When balanced junior Dante Butler is thrown into the mix, Price admitted that assigning backfield groupings has become a headache. He said most of the backs would be employed based on the situation and often will be paired without a true fullback on the roster.

Wide receivers

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.

Determining who lines up across or next to him is a more pressing question. While Johnson has noted improved play from juniors Justyn Shackleford and Xavier Rush, a rash of drops has kept Johnson from feeling entirely comfortable about his favorite position.

Devon Breaux has emerged as one of the team’s best athletes, and Kedrick Banks’ quickness left defenders grasping at air before he was sidelined with an ankle injury. Both should get an opportunity to rotate in as Tulane attempts to shift defenders away from Grant.

Tight ends

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.

Expect senior offensive lineman Mike Henry to contribute alongside London and Marfisi in short-yardage situations.

Offensive line

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.

Defensive line

A pair of transfers propel the most improved position on the Green Wave’s roster.

LSU graduate transfer Chris Davenport’s massive stature at defensive tackle has overwhelmed Green Wave offensive linemen. Former Arkansas and junior-college defensive end Tyler Gilbert has found success coming off the edge to harass quarterbacks.

Those additions allow senior Julius Warmsley to slide between tackle and end depending on the situation. Junior Kenny Welcome’s rapid development fills a need in short-yardage situations. Co-defensive coordinator John Sumrall said the line’s talent difference between his arrival in the spring of 2012 and this fall is “night and day.”

Linebacker

If it weren’t for offensive line, linebacker would be the position keeping Johnson up at night.

Nearly three weeks into preseason camp, the Green Wave still hasn’t settled on any starters. Seniors Zach Davis and Dominique Robertson bring experience, but freshmen Eric Thomas and Nico Marley have been the ones turning heads in practice.

Linebackers coach Barry Lamb said he’s been cross-training each linebacker to play a variety of positions and plans to spend the first few games piecing together a consistent group whether two, three or four linebackers are used at a given time.

Secondary

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.

Then the Green Wave brought back 2011 starter Jordan Sullen after a yearlong suspension and added two-year Memphis starter Taurean Nixon to the roster via transfer. The result is a pass defense capable of playing man-to-man, allowing Monroe and fellow safety Sam Scofield to roam freely, looking for turnovers.

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.

Special teams

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.