Tulane went 4-8 in head coach Willie Fritz’ first season and the Green Wave should be even better this fall now that everyone has had a full year together. This should especially be the case on offense, as Fritz is hoping for better execution of his complex attack, even if there is still some uncertainty as to which quarterback will be running it. The defense returns eight starters but must replace two of the best players in program history. Unfortunately the schedule alone could be the difference between Tulane showing continued improvement on the field and against American Athletic Conference competition but that not being reflected in the number of wins.
Previewing Tulane Football’s Offense for 2017
Coach Willie Fritz has won everywhere he has been, but he had no shot in his first year at Tulane. None of the quarterbacks he inherited had thrown a pass in college football, making the Green Wave unique in FBS. The outlook is much better in Year 2 thanks to the spring arrival of dual-threat Jonathan Banks, whose skill set matches what Fritz wants to do.
Banks, a one-time four-star recruit, spent a year at Kansas State in between two junior college starting stints. Even if Banks does not win the job, junior Glen Cuiellette and sophomore Johnathan Brantley will be more comfortable with a year of experience in Fritz’ run-heavy, spread-based shotgun system that incorporates elements of the zone read and the triple option.
The rest of the offense should be improved, too. Tulane, which averaged 228.1 rushing yards after managing 115.8 in 2015, goes four deep at running back, starting with shifty senior Dontrell Hilliard (1,857 career yards on a 5.4 average). Junior Terren Encalade (36 catches, 500 yards, six TDs) leads a group of young receivers who learned on the job a year ago. Junior college transfer Jabril Clewis, a former San Diego State signee, adds the size Fritz wants at wideout.
Center Junior Diaz, back from a fractured ankle that sidelined him for the final nine games of 2016, leads a line that boasts five players with starting experience.
Previewing Tulane Football’s Defense for 2017
The key question is how Tulane will replace disruptive defensive tackle Tanzel Smart (18.5 tackles for a loss in 2016) and diminutive linebacker Nico Marley (school-record 50.5 tackles for a loss), a pair of two-time first-team All-AAC selections. The Wave have talent and experience across the defense, but guys like that duo come along maybe once a decade.
Senior end Ade Aruna, raw when he arrived at Tulane, could blossom into an All-AAC performer with his combination of speed and explosiveness. Five more ends who played regularly a year ago are back, which allowed the coaches to experiment with Aruna inside at times in the spring as they looked for ways to take full advantage of the talent on hand.
Senior cornerback Parry Nickerson, a three-year starter with 10 career interceptions, earned second-team All-AAC honors in 2016. He is part of secondary that has four starters back, including leading returning tacklers Jarrod Franklin and Roderic Teamer.
Tulane is thin at linebacker and will rely heavily on the tandem of Zach Harris and Rae Juan Marbley, who combined for nine starts a year ago.
Previewing Tulane Football’s Specialists for 2017
Fritz inherited a disaster-prone special teams unit. Progress was made, but there were still plenty of issues last fall, including four muffed punts. Placekicking is the great unknown. Andrew DiRocco decided not to return for his senior year, leaving a cast of untested kickers to compete for the job. Punter Zachary Block will look to improve on a mediocre sophomore season (40.8-yard average).
Tulane should be more competitive now that Fritz and his players are familiar with each other. Simply getting his quarterbacks to know when to pitch or run on options proved challenging a year ago, when Tulane beat UConn in its finale to avoid its first winless conference season since it left the SEC in the 1960s.
Being more competitive, however, won’t necessarily translate into more wins. Not only do the Wave play in the far more difficult West Division of the AAC, but they must also face USF, the overwhelming favorite in the East. And don’t forget about a game at Oklahoma. Anything close to a .500 record would be a great accomplishment.
National Ranking: 100
AAC West Prediction: 6
(Dontrell Hilliard photo courtesy of Tulane Athletics)