Welcome to the Deadspin 25, a college football poll that strives to be more democratic and less useless than every other preseason poll. Leading up to the college football season kickoff, we will give you previews of the 25 teams that you, the readers, voted to be most worthy of writing about. Now, No. 4 Tulane.
Here’s a picture of the infamous Tulane Green Wave home crowd during a 2015 loss to Duke, which I had the pleasure of covering:
There’s really not a better picture to sum up just how much of a blight Tulane has been on college football for the past five decades—a program that lacked focus and attention, one that no one really gave a shit about, save for the people who had to be there or had nothing better to do. Take a stroll through their record books and you’ll find that, whoa, the Green Wave were actually in the SEC at one point in time. But those days of palling around with the big boys have been long forgotten. Even as football grew more and more ludicrously profitable for universities, Tulane couldn’t quite figure out how to get back in the business.
Despite the fact Tulane’s topped .500 just three out of the past 18 seasons, the Green Wave have hired just four coaches in that time, none of them bringing in the right staff or recruiting the right players to haul the carcass of the once-great program from the depths where it currently resides. Now, in current head coach Willie Fritz, the Green Wave have found the perfect candidate—for his sake, I hope it’s not too late.
Fritz has a knack for turnaround projects—he’s done it at practically every level he’s coached at, which prior to the Tulane gig, was Texas high school football, junior college, the FCS, and the FBS. Everywhere you look, Fritz managed to have success after a couple years. The examples stretch back to the 1980's; more recently, he took Sam Houston State to two straight national championship games in 2011 and 2012—the previous 20 years, the Bearkats had been to the playoffs just twice. After another playoff run in 2013, Fritz departed to help guide Georgia Southern through its first season in the FBS. With him at the helm, the Eagles finished 9-3 and went undefeated in the Sun Belt, becoming the third team in FBS history to nab a conference title in its first season. Tulane quickly snapped him up in 2015; unlike his previous stops, where the only thing that came quicker than the turnarounds were the new job offers, the rebuilding process hasn’t even gotten close to being finished.
Now, having taken a step up (I guess?) in the world of Division I coaching, Fritz is gifted with one of the toughest and most frustrating assignments that exists in the game. The Green Wave have long been terrible—they’ve popped out the rare winning season every now and again, even going undefeated in 1998, but the fact is that sustained success simply hasn’t existed at the New Orleans school since the end of World War II. Since 1950, Tulane has topped .500 in consecutive years just four times (97-98, 79-81, 72-73, and 55-56). That’s fucking bleak.
Even with Fritz The Magician at the helm, Tulane still struggled mightily in its first campaign under the man tasked with reviving it, finishing 4-8 in 2016. Bringing with him the spread option offense he instituted at Georgie Southern, Fritz still couldn’t overcome an inexperienced offense; not one of his quarterbacks had attempted a college pass heading into the season. The wins came exactly where you’d expect—Southern, UL-Lafayette, UMass, UConn—though they did manage to challenge Navy, Wake Forest, and SMU, losing by a one-score margin or less against the trio of average teams. Against the AAC’s best, the team struggled to get any sort of momentum going, largely because the offense just could not figure out how to consistently score in a league that loves to do exactly that.
So far this season, the results seemingly point to actual growth, a welcome sign. They played Navy extremely close in another loss—probably has something to with the defense seeing an option look every day in practice—and knocked off Army this past weekend 21-17. Throw in an auto-win against Grambling State and an auto-loss to Oklahoma and you’ve got a 2-2 team that’s well on its way to sniffing the .500 line.
A large part of this early season success stems from the fact that Fritz was able to choose his own quarterback this year. In the offseason, he went out and snagged Jonathan Banks, and the former community college star is slowly morphing into something of a decent QB Fritz. He’s a dual-threat quarterback, currently ranked second on the team in rushing yards, though that game appears to be more efficient than the Tulane passing attack. The Green Wave don’t have a ton of depth at receiver; outside of Terren Encalade, who leads the team with 149 yards and a score on 13 receptions, no other receiver has crossed the 100-yard mark. Jabril Clewis was thought to be a possible No. 2 for Banks, but thus far, that role has been filled by Darnell Mooney, who has 90 yards on six catches. While Banks has been smart with the ball—only a 54.8 completion percentage but no interceptions through four games—but you don’t have to spend too much time watching this team to understand that it’s on the ground that the Green Wave feel most comfortable, and for good reason.
The Tulane offense uses a lot of pre-snap movement in an attempt to keep teams on their toes, and the backfield will often times end up with four backs in it—depending on the play, two running backs will flank the quarterback in shotgun and another back will motion to about a yard behind the guard. While the backfield is constantly filled with new faces, there’s one constant: Dontrell Hilliard.
Hilliard is one of the AAC’s most entertaining backs and has been for going on four years now. Having joined the team in 2013, Hilliard was used instantly as a rookie and developed into the team’s feature back the next two seasons. This season, through four games, he’s already amassed 342 yards and three scores on 60 carries, good for 5.7 yard per touch. He’s also ranks third on the the team’s receptions yards list, with 77 yards on but three catches.
The defense, meanwhile, kept games as close as it could last season. Tulane held six of its 12 opponents under 30 points—that ain’t great by any stretch, but given the recruiting mess this team’s been mired in, it’s a start. The team also improved from 80th to 31st in the nation in average yards allowed, meaning Fritz will be looking for even better this season, which is not an impossible ask. This season, Oklahoma’s unsurprisingly been the only team to really rack up the points on the Green Wave, though contests against SMU, Memphis, and South Florida loom on the conference schedule.
When they face those deadly attacks, Tulane will turn to players like defensive tackle Braynon Edwards and defensive end Luke Jackson—Jackson fucking rules, because not only does he lead the team in sacks right now, he’s also a recent testicular cancer survivor, having had to gain back 30 pounds he lost after going through treatments. Now a redshirt senior, he’s starting for the first time in his career and already has 3.5 sacks to his name. Behind him, corner Parry Nickerson is back for his senior season; he’s already bumped up his career interceptions total to 11 after picking off one of the few passes Navy rolls out each week. This group isn’t perfect, but it’s got talent, experience, and now, the coaching—if they can avoid any major slip-ups against the AAC’s weaker teams, this unit will play a major role in getting Tulane back to the postseason.
For two long years, Dontrell Hilliard was not just the Guy To Know for Tulane, but practically the entire Green Wave offense. Hilliard has wheels that would fit right in any Power Five contest and the moves to make linebackers think twice before they pin their ears back.
Hilliard boasts great balance, especially when he nears the goal line; he can take a hit and keep chugging, but it’s when he makes it to the second level untouched that he becomes A Problem. When that perfect moment comes and the Green Wave line opens up a crease, Hilliard hits it as fast as any back and explodes past any poor, flat-footed safeties caught napping on the speedster. Watching him increase his lead by five, 10, 15 yards as he jets to the end zone makes it almost worth it to watch a Tulane game. I still wouldn’t advise it, but I wouldn’t blame you, either.
No, and they don’t stand much of a chance to compete in the AAC, either. That’s okay—Fritz is on the record having said that a bowl game is this year’s goal, and that makes him a smart man. The schedule isn’t all that cruel, and you can see the Green Wave taking their baby steps to a winning record; I’d wager by season’s end, they’ll have their six wins and Fritz will, once again, be another program’s savior.
I haven’t found anything that indicates Willie Fritz is a dick, which isn’t all that typical of someone that’s had skin in the game since the early 80's. Maybe that’s a product of working at tiny programs, maybe he’s a standup guy. As always, holler if you feel any type of way about him.
Sept. 2: Grambling State (W 43-14)
Sept. 9: @ Navy (L 23-21)
Sept. 16: @ Oklahoma (L 56-14)
Sept. 23: Army (W 21-17)
Oct. 7: Tulsa
Oct. 14: @ FIU
Oct. 21: South Florida
Oct. 27: @ Memphis
Nov. 4: Cincinnati
Nov. 11: @ East Carolina
Nov. 18: Houston
Nov. 25: @ SMU