Team preview: Tulane
The Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook previews the 2006 Tulane Green Wave, exclusively on Insider.
For most college football teams, the optimism accompanying the 2006 season begins with returning starters, experienced players, growing depth and the expectations surrounding star playmakers and honors candidates.
For Tulane, optimism has more to do with relief, with the hope that the 2006 season will be hard pressed to muster more pain, grief, chaos and frustration than the Green Wave experienced in 2005.
How could things get any worse? Hurricane Katrina forced the football team to evacuate New Orleans for temporary shelter in Jackson, Miss., and Dallas. Many players lost all their belongings and their homes or apartments. Other waited days to learn of the fate of their families and friends, and only to see many of their loved ones forced to evacuate to temporary situations throughout the Southeast.
The Green Wave eventually settled in Ruston, La., on the Louisiana Tech campus, where it spent the fall attending school, practicing and trying to establish some semblance of normalcy.
Tulane was able to play all 11 of its games, but in 11 different stadiums, and even though the football program won the 2005 Courage Award, presented annually by the Football Writers Association of America and the FedEx Orange Bowl, it didn't do much to make up for a season that ended with a 2-9 record including eight consecutive losses.
The team finally returned to New Orleans during the holiday break, but even spring practice and offseason conditioning were postponed and limited by the restoration of the on-campus James W. Wilson Center, which houses the Green Wave strength and conditioning area, athletic training room, academic services offices and computer lab. Meanwhile, the team had to wait until the first week of April for the installation of new turf to be completed on its practice fields.
The Green Wave then crammed 15 practices into 20 days, even though many players were nowhere near where they needed to be in terms of strength and conditioning. When spring practice finally came to an end on April 22, coach Chris Scelfo knew his team still had a long way to go to get ready for the 2006 season.
"I don't think it's fair for anybody, to judge me, our coaches, and our players off of last year," Scelfo said. "I don't think anyone realized the magnitude of what these guys have gone through, and I think everybody gave it all they had."
In many ways, Katrina still casts a dark shadow over the program. Even the dark clouds on the horizon -- some real, some imagined, some the result of hurricane experts predicting another series of powerful hurricanes this summer -- give Scelfo reason to be concerned about the immediate future.
"Hurricane season runs right into football season," Scelfo said, "and that could be on the mind of some of our players."
With or without hurricanes, the job of preparing for the season is challenging enough. Tulane graduated 15 seniors, including 11 starters, and lost six more players who decided it was simply time to start over somewhere else.
The Green Wave returns 13 starters, including seven on offense and five on defense, and punter Chris Beckman, but must fill plenty of holes, regain its sense of direction and restore confidence as a program in time to play a schedule that includes road games at LSU, Auburn and Mississippi State.
The offense has a lot of work to do, starting with replacing three offensive line starters and getting some of its key skill players back on the right track after shaky performances in 2005. The offense must also cut down on turnovers after giving way 26 last year, 16 on interceptions and 10 on fumbles.
"I'm not sure if you can pinpoint any one thing," offensive coordinator Frank Scelfo said. "It was a combination of things -- the move, being away from home, coaching, whatever -- but we never really lived up to the expectations we had when the season started."
The defense is loaded with returning players up front but must replace five starters -- who just happened to lead Tulane in tackles in 2005 -- among its linebackers and safeties, including one NFL draft choice, linebacker Anthony Cannon. The defense must also work on creating more turnovers after forcing only 14 in 2005.
"That group really started out the season strong and sort of wore down as the season went on," defensive coordinator Eric Schumann said. "Now we're losing all those kids and we're really inexperienced at linebacker and defensive back. We're working with a bunch of kids who haven't had any playing time."
Add it all up and Tulane must improve on both sides of the ball after finishing 111th among 117 Division I-A teams in the nation in turnover margin. Opponents scored 106 points off Tulane turnovers, including 14 touchdowns, while the Green Wave scored 44 points and six touchdowns off its 14 takeaways.
More than anything, the Green Wave must do everything it can on and off the practice fields this summer to move forward as individuals and as a team.
"I think the biggest thing is that our football team understands how important conditioning and being fit to play a full game are, which we weren't last year," Scelfo said. "But going through the spring I think they saw themselves really getting tired more easily and losing focus and concentration and not being able to execute. If that message is taken to heart, then we'll be a better football team for it.
"Up until this point I think [conditioning] has been a problem for us, but it's not anything we can't make the ground up on either. But there's going to have to be a lot of dedication on the part of individuals."
Just as former Tulane quarterbacks Shaun King, Patrick Ramsey and J.P. Losman all led Tulane to winning seasons, no single player is more tied to the fortunes of the Green Wave than senior quarterback Lester Ricard (6-5, 222).
Ricard won the starting job in 2004 and improved with time and experience, passing for 21 touchdowns and only nine interceptions while completing .619 of his passes for 209 yards per game and ranking 11th in the country in passing efficiency (152.51).
Ricard appeared on his way toward an even better junior season when Katrina took its toll. He passed for 16 touchdowns and 12 interceptions while averaging 193.4 yards passing per game and completing 51.4 percent of his passes for a passing efficiency of 110.55. Along the way, he eventually lost his confidence and his starting job to sophomore Scott Elliott (6-1 193).
"Emotionally [last season] wore me out," Ricard told The Times-Picayune. "Fatigue set in during a lot of games, and as a team, we played well for three quarters and then got tired in the fourth quarter. We'd also started off slow in a lot of games. Me personally, I wish I would've played a whole lot better."
If spring practice provides any real indication, Ricard is back on the right path to becoming the quarterback Tulane coaches always thought he could be.
"So many things went wrong for Lester, and the whole team, last fall and I think he did a lot of things to start putting that in the past in the spring," offensive coordinator Frank Scelfo said. "He looked a lot sharper, a lot more confident and took better care of the football, so I think he's going to be fine."
Taking care of the football must be one of Ricard's top priorities this fall.
"When you go into a situation [like last year], you always try to make the big play," Ricard said. "That's where I think I got in trouble, trying to force the football and not playing within myself. Without a doubt, I think I've gotten better, and I think this team as a whole is a lot better."
If something happens to Ricard, the Green Wave knows it can always turn to Elliott, who gained valuable experience by starting the last three games of the season. Elliott isn't as big, strong or talented as Ricard and he didn't fare much better last fall, completing 52.2 percent of his passes for 515 yards with four touchdowns and four interceptions, but the coaches know what he can do.
"He's a solid player and he knows what to do with the football," Frank Scelfo said. "He's a lot better off than he was a year ago and that should make the team and the quarterback position better."
Tulane's would-be third-string quarterback, senior Nick Cannon (6-3, 215) has yet to fulfill his promise due to injuries, and redshirt freshman Anthony Scelfo (5-10, 190), Chris Scelfo's nephew and Frank Scelfo's son, showed some ability to make plays with his arm and legs during the spring when he wasn't playing baseball for the Green Wave.
Like Ricard, junior running back Matt Forte (6-1, 224) never really got on track last fall. One season after gaining 624 yards and scoring four touchdowns while sharing time with Jovon Jackson, Forte had the job all too himself in 2005 and finished with 655 yards and four touchdowns. In the process, his average yards per carry dropped from 4.5 to 3.9.
"I'm not sure how to explain it except to point to everything that happened to us as a team last year," Frank Scelfo said. "He looked great in the spring and in fall camp and we thought he was going to have a big year, but he just never really played like he's capable of playing. Some of that is him, some of that was my coaching and some of it was just our circumstances, but we need him to get back to where he was before." Like Ricard, Forte spent spring practice showing signs he was ready to be the ball carrier, receiver and blocker he can be.
"Matt had the best spring since he's been here," Chris Scelfo said. "He's really dedicated himself and played well."
Forte's combination of size and speed and his ability to make plays as a runner and receiver means he could see the ball as often as 30 times a game.
"We need him to be a playmaker and carry the load for us," Frank Scelfo said. Forte must also remain healthy, because the Green Wave lacks proven depth at running back. Redshirt freshman Christian Ducré was expected to challenge for the backup running back spot this season but decided to leave the team in the offseason.
That leaves junior Ray Boudreaux (5-10, 200), who showed some promise in the spring game (even throwing two halfback passes for touchdowns) and junior Adeboye Tuyo (5-11, 203) to compete for playing time behind Forte. Tulane doesn't spend a lot of time in two-back sets, but when it does Tuyo and senior walk-on Ian Miller (6-0, 253) will be used as fullbacks.
The team's fourth-leading receiver in 2005, sophomore Cary Koch, decided in the spring to leave the program, but the Green Wave still returns two of its leading receivers in seniors Preston Brown (6-4, 232) and Damarcus Davis (6-0, 189).
Brown emerged from relative obscurity to lead the team with 47 receptions, 720 yards and six touchdowns in 2005 and gives the quarterbacks a big target to throw to. Davis also made considerable progress in 2005 and finished third on the team with 28 receptions, 280 yards and three touchdowns.
"Those two guys give us two receivers we can really count on," Frank Scelfo said.
The Green Wave is particularly excited about the return of junior Fred Smith (5-8, 183), who missed the 2005 season with injuries. Smith played a limited role in the spring but is expected to be back as a receiver and return specialist in August.
"We really missed his speed and his ability to make plays," Frank Scelfo said. "He'll play an important role for us."
Beyond Brown, Davis and Smith, Tulane's spread, multi-receiver offense will count on continued improvement from sophomore Brian King (6-1, 180), junior Kenny Guidroz (6-3, 209) and redshirt freshmen Jeremy Williams (6-2, 175) and Chris Dunn (6-2, 200). There was a time when the coaches were counting on sophomore Michael Batiste (6-2, 188), but he has fallen behind Williams and Dunn.
"All of those guys can catch the ball," Frank Scelfo said, "so that gives us a lot more options."
With tackle Chris McGee, guard Matt Traina and center Joe Traina completing their eligibility, Tulane lost three dependable linemen who combined to start 128 games the last four years.
"That's a tough group to replace," Frank Scelfo said, "because they brought so much experience and played so well together. But I feel like we've got some good young players ready to step up. It's just a matter of how quickly it all comes together."
The rebuilding offensive line starts with a nucleus of senior tackle Derek Rogers (6-5, 309), sophomore center Michael Parenton (6-3, 292) and sophomore left tackle Troy Kropog (6-4, 287). All three players saw extensive playing time last year and Parenton earned C-USA All-Freshman honors, but he's also making the move from right guard to center this season.
Parenton's move to the middle is made possible by the return of senior Donald Madlock (6-4, 295), a two-year starter who missed all of 2005 after undergoing shoulder surgery following the 2004 season.
"People almost sort of forget about Donald, but we don't," Frank Scelfo said. "He's played a lot of football here and we sort of consider him a third returning starter. We've just got to keep him healthy so he can help us."
That still leaves the Green Wave with one more spot to be settled and plenty of depth to be built behind the starters. Juniors Scott Holt (6-5, 282) and Aryan Barto (6-4, 262) are still competing for the starting job at left guard. Barto will also back up Parenton at center.
Tulane coaches are counting on reserve help from three redshirt freshman linemen: right tackle Tyler Rice (6-5, 285), guard John Landa (6-3, 295) and left tackle Travis Olexa (6-4, 290). Rice did his part in the spring, pushing Rogers for the starting job and playing time.
When an injury sidelined senior Barrett Pepper (5-10, 193) early last season, Jacob Hartgroves stepped in and made 4-of-6 field goals and 28-of-30 extra points. Then Tulane dropped his major in the aftermath of Katrina. Hartgroves, who had planned to major in mechanical engineering at Tulane, decided to transfer to Texas A&M to pursue his education.
Pepper continued to struggle with injury problems in the spring and needs to get and stay healthy this summer, because the Green Wave coaches are eagerly awaiting the arrival of freshman kicker Ross Thevenot (5-11, 180).
"I am ecstatic about [Thevenot]," Chris Scelfo said, "because he can do all three [kicks, punts and kickoffs] and he's good."
The defensive line has been a source of concern for Tulane in recent years, with injuries and inexperience often taking quite a toll. Just last season, the Green Wave played without any seniors on the defensive front.
This time around, no position on the Tulane depth chart is deeper and more loaded with competition than the defensive line, where all four starters and 11 players with experience return to battle for time.
Junior defensive end Antonio Harris (6-2, 271) led all Green Wave defensive linemen in tackles in 2005 with 34 and added six tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks.
"He had a good spring and just kept getting better," Schumann said.
Junior defensive tackle Alvin Johnson (6-3, 300) led the team with three sacks and two seniors, defensive end Michael Purcell (6-1, 275) and defensive tackle Taurean Brown (6-6, 280), played solid roles.
"We hit a spell that set us back with injuries and all, but now those guys have played and they have a lot of game experience, so we should be able to play a two-deep rotation there," defensive coordinator Eric Schumann said. "Every one of them pretty much is in the running for playing time. The problem in the spring is that a lot of guys weren't in the best of shape because of all that we went through with our facilities and we need to work on that over the summer."
At the tackle spots, the returning starters will be pushed by juniors Avery Williams (6-0, 282) and Frank Morton (6-2, 303).
At the end positions, the spring performances of talented sophomores Sean Carney (6-3, 240) and Julian Shives-Sams (6-2, 266) led the coaches to look at moving senior Billy Harrison (6-4, 243) and Purcell at the other end spot behind Harris. Don't be surprised if Carney and Shives-Sams share one end spot this fall while Harrison and Purcell play backup roles.
The Green Wave lost all three starters at linebacker, including Cannon, the school's all-time tackle leader and a four-year starter. That means Schumann is starting over with an extremely young group.
"We saw a lot of mistakes in the spring -- mistakes that shouldn't be made," Schumann said. "Their heads were really swimming. That's a little scary because those guys make all the calls. We've just got to be keep our patience, keep working, keeping them moving forward and giving them a chance to get better."
There are no seniors among the linebackers and the only junior is Terrence Peterson (5-11, 215), a converted safety who has seen most of his playing time on special teams. Peterson is a leading candidate to start at strong-side linebacker, but the rest of the linebackers are sophomores and freshmen.
Sophomore Ace Foyil, who played nine games and started one as a freshman and would have contended for a starting job, transferred to LSU when Tulane dropped his major in February.
The two contenders for the starting job at middle linebacker, Jordan Ellis (6-1, 235) and Evan Lee (6-1, 230), played backup roles as freshmen last year.
The leading candidate for the starting weak-side linebacker job, sophomore James Dillard (6-1, 220) also played as a freshman in 2005, and his backup, James McMurchy (6-1, 215) is a redshirt freshman. Even Peterson's backup, David Kirksey (6-1, 200) is a red-shirt freshman.
"Every one of them has shown signs but as soon as you start to think 'hey, this guy has a chance,' he'll slip back," Schumann said. "It's just not ingrained yet. It all comes down to who picks it up the fastest. We also signed six linebackers, so hopefully we can get another Anthony Cannon to step in as a freshman."
The Green Wave spent the spring trying to replace Tra Boger, a three-year starter at free safety, and Sean Lucas, who played corner and safety in his last two seasons and finished his career with eight interceptions. Both players ranked among Tulane's top five tacklers in 2005. The Wave also lost another experienced cornerback, Bruce Youmans.
The good news is that the Green Wave returns two senior cornerbacks in Israel Route (5-11, 184), the team's leading returning tackler (40, including 2.5 for loss), and Jeremy Foreman (6-2, 172).
"We've definitely got some experience at cornerback," Schumann said. "Those two guys [Route and Foreman] have played a lot of ball for us, so we feel good about them. Their backups haven't played a lot, but [sophomore] Josh Lumar (5-11, 165) played some nickel for us last year and [sophomore] Matt Harding (5-11, 185) has improved, and that's one of the bright spots for us."
The key then becomes the progress of the safeties, starting with junior strong safety Joe Goosby (6-0, 203) and junior free safety Carlis Jackson (6-0, 178).
At strong safety, junior David Skehan (6-0, 196) and redshirt freshmen Cory Sonnier (6-0, 190) and Christian Okoye (6-1, 185) continue to compete for playing time behind Goosby. Junior Louis Thomas (5-11, 180) is backing up Jackson at free safety, but that's another spot where a true freshman might be able to break in to the rotation.
"The safety positions are still up for grabs," Schumann said. "Joe Goosby has the most experience and played really well in the spring game, but he still hasn't played all that much. He's really the only guy who's played much at all. Carlis Jackson played a little late in some games last year, so a lot of this is new to him. We've got to get them lined up in the right spot and give them a chance."
Chris Beckman (6-2, 202) is a senior and a former all-conference selection (in 2004) with a career average of 42.4 yards per punt, but he missed the last two games of the 2005 season after suffering a serious abdominal wound in a hunting accident.
Beckman returned in the spring and Chris Scelfo said he looked better than ever, but Scelfo would prefer he stay away from deer hunting until the football season ends.
"He looked good in the spring," Chris Scelfo said, "and since hunting season doesn't start until November, I know we'll have him for September and October."
Beyond Beckman's return and the continued uncertainty surrounding the placekicking job, the expected return of Fred Smith and Izzy Route gives Tulane two of C-USA's best return specialists.
"So I think we have a chance to make some things happen in the return game," Scelfo said.
Smith finished second in C-USA and 31st nationally in punt returns in 2004, with an average of 11.6 yards.
"Fred's very dependable and a guy we need back out here," Scelfo said. "He should be 100 percent by the end of the summer."
Still, even though Tulane finished third in C-USA last year with an average of 11.3 yards per punt return, the Green Wave still struggled with its protection and coverage and suffered a number of breakdowns that must be corrected.
Ideally, the Green Wave would like to see things get back to normal this season. Realistically, that's probably not going to happen.
"In reality, the city, the campus, the athletic department, the football team -- it's going to take awhile," Schumman said. "It's affected everybody and it's going to take a couple of years for everything to return to normal."
Still, it helps to be back on campus, back in the football facility and working toward a season that includes five home games in the Superdome.
As if moving past last season's adversity isn't tough enough, the Green Wave faces a rugged schedule that opens with three consecutive road games and five of the first seven games on the road. Two of those games will be played at Mississippi State on Sept. 16 and LSU on Sept. 23 and the Green Wave will also travel to Auburn on Oct. 21.
"If we go undefeated this season, we're not going to play in the Conference USA championship game, we're going to play in the SEC championship game in Georgia," Ricard joked. "We're playing almost the entire SEC West."
The positive aspect of the schedule is that Tulane plays three of its last five games at home. Even better, all the home games will be played in New Orleans, with no more "home" games like the ones Tulane played in 2005.
"It will be a challenge for our team to open with three straight road games, but if that means we're back in our home stadium for the last two months, it will be worth the wait," Tulane athletic director Rick Dickson told The Times-Picayune.
Good or bad, the Green Wave coaches and players can't do anything about the past or the schedule. All they can do is work toward preparing for the 2006 season. For the players, that means returning to the weight room and the practice fields with a renewed effort to make up for lost time and get themselves physically and mentally ready to make the most of August.
"We've still got an awful lot of work to do between now and the start of the season to be a competitive football team," Scelfo said. "I still don't have a feel for this team. These players have been through a lot, but there are still a lot of challenges ahead of us."
For the most comprehensive previews available on all 119 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college football, the 2006 Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com or call 1-866-805-BALL (2255).