Behind Stellar Defense, Tulane 'On the Rise'
Coach Curtis Johnson brought a complex, aggressive defensive approach over from the New Orleans Saints organization in 2012, but couldn’t get the results needed to be competitive in his first season as a head football coach.
“Our first year together, everyone was new. It was kind of hard because we were learning a new defense, the offensive wasn’t clicking. …we bit off more than we could chew,” junior safety Darion Monroe told FanIQ during a phone interview earlier in the week. “We were all learning on the job. It was a bit mixed up.”
Tulane was outscored by an average of 21.0 points in 2012, with the defense allowing a whopping 38.4 points to opposing offenses on a weekly basis. It was all too familiar for a program that hadn’t been to a bowl game since 2002.
At some point during the offseason, something clicked; a fire started in the belly of the Green Wave’s upperclassmen and team leaders.
“Last summer, the older guys got together and said, ‘we’re not going to be a 10-loss team, we’re going to be a 10-win team,’” said Monroe, who earned All-Conference USA honors as a freshman and sophomore. “Then we started clicking and started becoming great.”
For the first four games of the 2013 season, Tulane’s defense was average, but that was expected with some turnover issues and the first real drive to perform at a high level in nearly a decade.
From late September to the first week of November, it molded, gained momentum and become pretty darn good. It helped the Green Wave achieve a four-game winning streak, becoming bowl eligible for the first time in over 10 years.
And then it became great. Despite winning just one if its final four games, Tulane’s defense turned into a mid-major Michigan State with its intense aggression, daring opponents to attempt going downfield and forcing a ridiculous amount of three-and-outs. It also had to compensate for one of the nation’s least-efficient offensive units that seemed to get worse as the year went on.
“It was hard, but believing in what coach (Johnson) was doing, and believing in the system, and the fans coming out and supporting us even after a tough season, we were able to (accomplish a lot),” said Monroe.
Tulane was invited to the R+L Carriers New Olreans Bowl – its first since a 2002 Hawaii Bowl appearance, when Monroe was nine years old – where it was beat by Louisiana at Lafayette, 24-21.
The Green Wave have a taste for winning and a hunger for more – not to mention a desire to actually win a bowl game, now that they’ve been there – but there’s plenty of work to be done in order to replicate last season’s success and continue moving forward.
One of the biggest catalysts of its seven-win campaign was how Tulane dominated the middle of the field with a destructive front seven. Big-time space eaters Julius Warmsley and Chris Davenport were key strengths, helping the defense finish No. 17 in the country against the run (123.7 yards per game), which allowed the secondary to play its punch-you-in-the-mouth-style, disruptive defense at the line of scrimmage.
Both are now gone, as is playmaking middle linebacker Zach Davis. While the secondary is stout, there could be some regression here – but not much, according to Monroe.
“I think it will be a little difficult because we have a lot of young guys playing the front, and have to learn of the job (just as we did in 2012). In the back, we have to help by protecting long and doing a bunch different things,” he said. “But we’ll be okay in that aspect. The new guys will be tested the first few games, but have some playing time and experience up there; they’re just first-year starters.”
Despite the move over from Conference USA to the American Athletic Conference, Monroe remains adamant on the fact that it will be good enough to compete at a high level and return to the postseason.
In fact, the bar has been set pretty high.
“This is big-time for us. In the C-USA, you don’t get many TV games, but with the AAC, you have many games like that,” Monroe said of Tulane’s new home. “There’s a lot better competition for us so it will show us where we’re at and show us what we need to work on. Central Florida took the conference by storm last year, and that’s our measuring stick.
With a difficult schedule that features road games at Duke, Rutgers, UCF, Houston, and East Carolina, and tough home matchups with Georgia Tech and Cincinnati, there will be little room for error if the Green Wave want to make big splash their first season as a member of the AAC.
“It’s going to take hard work in the summer and the little things like not missing classes and being on time in meetings. That plays a role on the field. Doing little things will help,” said Monroe. “But we were a little too content with just making that bowl game last year, and now we’re on the rise.”
*All quotes were obtained first hand.
Tyler Waddell is the College Football Blog Manager for FanIQ. Follow him on Twitter.