Tulane starts season with a new team – and a new standard

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Tulane football
(Photo: Parker Waters)

NEW ORLEANS – Tulane enters its season opener against South Alabama on Saturday night ranked No. 24 in the country.

The crowd in Yulman Stadium will see something no other crowd at a Green Wave game has ever seen – a ranked Tulane team taking the field to start its season.

Tulane’s ranking is based primarily on its success last season and the returning contributors.

“The standard is definitely set,” defensive back Jarius Monroe said. “We want to be better than the standard.”

That’ll take some doing.

The 2022 Green Wave finished 12-2. They won the American Athletic Conference championship. They went to the Cotton Bowl. They defeated USC.

That’s the University of Southern California, though a victory over any USC – the University of South Carolina, or maybe even the University of Southern Connecticut (if such a thing exists) – would also have been really significant if it meant Tulane becoming Cotton Bowl champions.

But even though that significant bowl victory took place on the second day of 2023, all of that stuff was part of the 2022 season.

At the end of the game, the Green Wave took a team photo and head coach Willie Fritz was quick to remind everyone “this is the last time we’ll all be together.”

When this year’s team held it first meeting of preseason camp a month ago, Fritz wrote “2023” on the board.

“This team is its own entity,” Fritz emphasized.

This team will write its own story beginning Saturday night on campus against South Alabama.

“I think we’ve done a really good job of putting (last season) behind us,” quarterback Michael Pratt said. “I think the positive we can take from it is knowing what we can accomplish, what we’re capable of as a team.

“We’ve moved way beyond that. We’re into a new year. We’ve got a totally different team. We’re excited to see what we can do and push forward and we know what our capabilities are.”

Last year’s team was feted with an on-campus parade in January just about the time this year’s team was returning to campus to begin off-season work.

“There was really a fine line between enjoying that and getting back to work and realizing that, that was over with,’ offensive lineman Sincere Haynesworth said. “We had our success, but if we wanted to be put in an opportunity to repeat and have anything close to the success that we had last season we had to start working.

“It’s been a message since January that, that was last year’s team and this is us now and we’ve got to pursue this opportunity with everything that we can.”

The Green Wave have a lot to work with as evidenced by their ranking in the AP preseason poll and their designation as the favorites to win the American Athletic Conference.

One key is the return of quarterback Michael Pratt, who’s on the verge of becoming the school’s all-time leader in touchdown passes and passing yards.

The most notable departure was that of running back Tyjae Spears, the Cotton Bowl MVP who rushed for 1,581 yards and 19 touchdowns last season and was a third-round draft pick of the Tennessee Titans.

Tulane doesn’t have an individual who’s likely to approach Spears’ statistics, but they have a talented group that could produce a top-flight rushing attack – Shaadie Clayton-Johnson, Shedro Louis, Arnold Barnes, Iverson Celestine and Mekhi Hughes.

Saturday’s game will be the beginning of an in-season evaluation to determine the running back’s precise roles.

“We’re going to play probably four backs early,” Fritz said. “It’s just really hard to evaluate those guys without going live a whole bunch – more so with pass protection than with running the ball.

“I tell these guys I have to be able to trust the way you carry the ball in practice. If you have poor ball security in practice I’m not going to play you. They understand that and they do a good job in practice.”

Spears was an every-down back because Fritz “didn’t have to worry about” whether he could handle any assignment.

The early part of the season will show Fritz who can be counted on to do what.

“We’ll whittle down to two or three running backs,” Fritz said, “but someone’s going to be the bell cow.”

Pratt and the running backs will operate behind what Fritz called “the best offensive line I’ve had since I’ve been here,” one comprised of “five guys that are possible all-conference-type guys.”

The wide receivers feature proven playmakers in Jha’quan Jackson and Lawrence Keys as well as talented though less-experienced players.

“We’ve got a lot of dudes that can really play ball,” Pratt said. “We’ve got a lot of speed on our offense, a lot of weapons all across the field.”

On defense, the preseason featured new defensive coordinator Shiel Wood (who came from Troy) “meshing two different systems” the one former coordinator Chris Hampton ran last year that Fritz is “comfortable with” and “what coach Wood brought in from Troy where they had an excellent defense.”

The line features nine players that have started at least one game for the Green Wave, but Tulane has to replace “two great linebackers (Nick Anderson and Dorian Williams)” and “three really good players” in the secondary – Larry Brooks, Macon Clark and Lummie Young III.

Fritz said, “I feel great about our kicking situation” thanks to the return of place-kicker Valentino Ambrosio (“steady Eddie,” as Fritz described him) and Casey Glover “a really good punter” and “a good kickoff guy) as well as the addition of Australian punter Will Karoll.

In addition to Wood the coaching staff features two familiar additions in former New Orleans Saints assistants – Dan Roushar (offensive line) and Greg McMahon (special teams), who also coached at LSU.

Also, new running backs coach Carter Sheridan (a graduate of St. Augustine High School) worked with the Saints and LSU as well as having a previous stint with the Green Wave in 2015.

Last year’s team began the season with home victories against outmanned opponents in Massachusetts and Alcorn State before announcing its arrival as a Top 25 worthy team with an upset victory at Kansas State, a team that would go on to win the Big XII Championship and play in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

This year’s team doesn’t get to ease its way into the schedule. South Alabama finished 10-3 last season, tying for first place in the Sun Belt West division and playing in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl. The Jaguars return 20 of 22 starters.

“That’s a team you can’t mess around with,” Pratt said. “You’ve got to bring your A game. We’ve had that circled on our schedule since we got back to work in January.”

By the way, No. 22 Ole Miss comes to Yulman Stadium next week and the Green Wave visit Southern Miss, which gave Tulane one of its losses last season, a week after that.

“Some people fail to realize that success always brings more opportunities than you get with failure,” Haynesworth said. “That’s kind of the mindset here. Last year’s team had a lot of success and that’s last year’s team.

“For anyone who’s a part of that success it just bred more opportunities for us this year. We have a whole new beast of an opportunity to conquer.”

The recognition that this is a new team doesn’t mean an inevitability of a less successful team.

Far from it.

“This is a totally different team,” Monroe said. “This isn’t the championship team that we had last year. We haven’t done anything yet. We’re not a championship team yet. Someday maybe we will be.”

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Les East

CCS/SDS/Field Level Media

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Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists. He has since become a valued contributor for CCS. The Jesuit High…

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