In the 100 days leading up to the kickoff of the college football season on Saturday, Aug. 25, HERO Sports is ranking the top 100 teams in the FBS. Each day, starting May 17 and ending Aug. 24, a new team is revealed in the HERO Sports Top 100.
Last November, Tulane fell inches shy of their first bowl berth since 2013 and second in the last 15 years — even though Jonathan Banks crossed the goal line vs. SMU.
They lost one of the best defenders in program history and are shuffling their defense around but Banks returns, as does most of an offensive line that will lead one of the nation's best rushing attacks. This program is trending up and the next step is bowl eligibility.
It was a touchdown. Tulane should've gone bowling.
Head Coach: Willie Fritz (3rd Year, 9-15)
Willie Fritz is the king of rebuilds and stabilization and he appears headed in the right direction at Tulane.
The 58-year-old former JUCO, D2, FCS and Georgia Southern head coach was given a contract extension in late May that may have been the result of Kansas' dismissal of athletics director Sheahon Zenger and musings that David Beaty will be next. Fritz played high school and college football in the state and began his coaching career at Shawnee Mission Northwest High School, just 30 minutes west of Lawrence.
"I couldn't be more excited with the direction in which our football program is headed," Fritz said after signing the extension. "It is an absolute joy to coach at this institution. We have total buy-in from everyone on our staff to our administration, and I know we have a bright future."
Whether or not the extension the prompted by Zenger's dismissal, there's no doubt Fritz deserved it.
RB Dontrell Hilliard, C Junior Diaz, DE Luke Jackson, LB Rae Juan Marbley, CB Parry Nickerson, S Jarrod Franklin
Tulane's run-game will be good in 2018 but the losses of running back Dontrell Hilliard and center Junior Diaz, who left for Florida Atlantic as a grad transfer, are still notable.
Defensively, leading tackler Rae Juan Marbley is gone after a breakout senior season, as Luke Jackson, the only player with more than two sacks last season. The biggest loss — on either side of the ball — is corner Parry Nickerson, a sixth-round pick of the Jets. He had three seasons with at least four interceptions, including six apiece in 2014 and 2017.
Returning Offensive Players
QB Jonathan Banks, RB Darius Bradwell, WR Terren Encalade, WR Darnell Mooney, WR Jabril Clewis, OT John Leglue, G Dominique Briggs, G/C Corey Dublin
Tulane's national rankings for total yards per game and scoring average in the three years prior to Fritz's arrival:
They couldn't run the football. They couldn't sustain drives. They could do anything productive on a consistent basis. In 2018, they could be one of the best consistent and balanced offensive teams in the country — if quarterback Jonathan Banks can be a little more efficient.
The Green Wave will run the football a lot but this isn't Fritz's 2015 Georgia Southern team that led the nation with 363 rushing yards per game. They have a dual-threat quarterback in Banks, a senior who spent time at Kansas State and two JUCOs before landing in New Orleans.
At times, he's elusive and a calculated risk-taker who can make every throw and scramble when needed. Other times, the footwork is sloppy and he throws into coverage. Banks finished the season strong (completed at last 68 percent of his passes in two of their final four games and had 565 passing yards and three touchdowns in their final two games) and played well in spring practice.
"He’s always had great fundamentals and technique in drills,” Fritz said in April. “Now he’s doing it in practice. I really see his feet and his lower body and his upper body working in correlation when he’s throwing the ball. He’s just got a lot better handle of the offense. He’s doing a very nice job."
On the receiving end of that heave is senior Terren Encalade, Banks' favorite target who averaged more than 18 yards per reception in 2017. Darnell Mooney, also capable of stretching the field and making people miss, is back for his junior year.
Even after the departure of Diaz, the line returns four of five starters, including local product Corey Dublin, who had a strong season at guard but will try center.
“I like it,” Dublin said. “I like getting to call the offense. It gives me a different perspective, and I like to be able to play multiple positions.”
Returning Defensive Players
DE Robert Kennedy, DE Patrick Johnson, DT Cameron Sample, LB Zachery Harris, CB Donnie Lewis Jr., S Roderic Teamer, S P.J. Hall
Longtime Fritz assistant Jack Curtis is back for a third season as defensive coordinator and linebackers coach and while a lot of key pieces are back, this unit will look different. They moved Roderic Teamer from strong safety to free safety and P.J. Hall from corner to free safety and will lean on a lot of sophomores to take the next step.
"We have a lot of guys that can run on defense,” Fritz said. “If you have enough size with a bunch of guys who can run and play hard and be physical, you've got a chance to have a very good defense.”
They'll need Teamer, Hall and senior corner Donnie Lewis Jr. to replace Nickerson's game-changing plays (like the one below vs. Houston). Lewis led the team with 14 passes defended.
"I've got a lot of room for improvement," Lewis said. "I'm really hard on myself, so anything as simple as anybody catching the ball in front of me at practice really gets to me. I'm really hard on myself this year. It's a big year for me, and I have some big goals for this year."
Robert Kennedy — who recovered from a torn ACL in just seven months last year — is the only upperclassman starter on a defensive line that could have least five freshmen and sophomores in big roles. Behind them is senior Zachery Harris (below) leading some new faces at linebacker.
QB Christian Daniels, RB Corey Dauphine, DT Jeffery Johnson
Tulane hit the jackpot when Jeffery Johnson, a three-star recruit with offers from Alabama, Florida and Florida State, committed to Tulane in December and enrolled early. He lost more than 25 pounds in his first eight weeks on campus (arrived at 345 pounds).
"There are not many guys his size that can move like that," Fritz said. "He's got really quick feet. You see him out there, he looks the part. You wouldn't be able to pick him out as a freshman. He's going to be a great player at Tulane."
Elsehwere, Another early enrollee, quarterback Christian Daniels, is competing with sophomore Dane Ledford for the backup spot. Former four-star recruit Corey Dauphine barely played at Texas Tech and is now in line for a lot of carries behind Darius Bradwell and could return kicks.
Tulane gets a rare Power Five home game when they open the season with Wake Forest , the second half of a home-and-home series that began with a 7-3 Wake win in Winston-Salem in 2016.
They play Ohio State for the first time in program history and open AAC play a week later with a home date vs. Memphis. And they close the season with two of three games at home, including the finale vs. Navy.
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