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Preview 2014 – Tulane Green Wave//

Preview 2014 – Tulane Green Wave

New league. New home. And a new direction for a program that was just pining for a reversal of fortune. 

There's an awful lot to feel optimistic about at Tulane, which hasn't been the case in a very long time. The Green Wave--shockingly-- went 7-6 a year ago to finish with a winning record and a bowl berth for the first time in 12 years. Up ahead are even more reasons for the program to beam with pride. 

In 2014, Tulane joins the more competitive American Athletic Conference, while pulling back the curtain on Yulman Stadium, a brand new open-air facility that replaces the impersonal and cavernous Superdome. The Green Wave is mildly trendy. Now it has to remain that way. 

Curtis Johnson did a terrific job in his second season as a head coach by maximizing every ounce of potential from his players. The talent pool in New Orleans was modest, yet Tulane overcame it with a scrappy defense that rung up an uncommon number of sacks, tackles for loss and turnovers. 

Coordinators Jon Sumrall and Lionel Washington will once again fashion a small, yet feisty D that can really take it to opponents. The secondary, led by Lorenzo Doss, Darion Monroe and Sam Scofield, is a collection of ball-hawks who can change the momentum of the game. But can the offense carry enough of the weight to keep the program from sliding south in the fall? 

Don't be fooled by the Green Wave's scoring output in 2013; it was greatly exaggerated by a defense that created countless short-field opportunities. Tulane averaged only 4.6 yards per play to rank 115th nationally. And now the team's leading rusher, Orleans Darkwa, and next-level wide receiver, Ryan Grant, are gone. 

If someone doesn't step up in a big way, the Green Wave will wind up putting too much pressure on a defense that can carry a squad only so far. Johnson doesn't have a single sure-thing on this side of the ball, and the battle at quarterback will rage on through the summer. 

It's the dawn of a new era at Tulane and an exciting time to be affiliated with the program. The Green Wave engineered an improbable mini-breakthrough in 2013. This season is all about avoiding the kind of ebb tide that washes away all of the gains that Johnson & Co. made last fall. 

What to watch for on offense: An interesting and protracted quarterback battle. Tulane's quest to crank up the offense begins behind center, with three uniquely different contenders. Nick Montana, Joe's son, is the oft-injured incumbent. Sophomore Devin Powell has all of the physical tools for success. Redshirt freshman Tanner Lee, though, might be the one to watch this summer. The 6-4, 203-pounder not only has the highest overall ceiling, but he outplayed his more experienced teammates in the spring. There's cautious optimism that Lee might be the program's best quarterback since J.P. Losman transferred from UCLA more than a decade ago. Lee and Powell were atop the depth chart at the conclusion of spring drills. 

What to watch for on defense: More of the same. Tulane isn't blessed with great size or a roster featuring the depth and talent of, say, LSU. The Green Wave is scrappy and athletic, compelling the coaches to turn the defenders loose and let them roam without many restrictions. The unit will certainly miss graduating DE Julius Warmsley and NB Jordan Batiste, who has transferred. Hopes are high, though, that Royce LaFrance can bloom into the program's best pass rusher, while stout, 331-pound DT Tanzel Smart anchors the interior of a line rebuilding at tackle. 

The team will be far better if ... if the offense can stretch the field more consistently. The Green Wave was downright feeble a year ago, producing just two plays of 50 or more yards in 13 games. Tulane gave opposing defenses a license to compress the field, and that was when it had a quality back and a future NFL wide receiver in the huddle. If the Green Wave is unable to perform with more pop and efficiency with the ball, it'll struggle every week to move the chains in a more competitive American Athletic Conference. 

The Schedule: The Green Wave get a nice big test right away at Tulsa to kick things off to let them know where they stand in the brave new world of the American Athletic Conference, and it doesn't get too much easier over the first half of the season having to deal with road games at Duke, Rutgers and UCF to go along with home games against Georgia Southern, UConn and Cincinnatin. And then comes November. Road games at Houston and East Carolina won't be fun, making Memphis and Temple dates vital. 

Best Offensive Player: Senior OT Sean Donnelly. Donnelly will anchor an offensive line that returns three starters, including OT Arturo Uzdavinis and Nathan Shienle, who's transitioning from guard to center. The unit needs to improve in all phases, with Donnelly setting the tone. The 6-8, 312-pounder owns three letters and two dozen career starts, using his long arms and his know-how to keep pass rushers off his body. Donnelly was named honorable mention All-Conference USA in 2013. 

Best Defensive Player: Junior CB Lorenzo Doss. Doss is good, like SEC-good. The third-year starter is beginning to build a resume that's going to be read by NFL people before very long. He's only 5-11 and 175 pounds, and in need of more muscle, but he has the elite cover skills to eliminate half the field for quarterbacks. The reigning First Team All-Conference USA selection broke up 16 passes in 2013, picking off a league-high seven of them and returning two for touchdowns. 

Key player to a successful season: Redshirt freshman QB Tanner Lee. Tulane's ceiling is limited if it can't get a spark out of the quarterback position, and Lee is the best guy to do the trick. Yes, he's young, but he's also brimming with upside potential. With the level of competition set to rise, the Green Wave must stride toward becoming a more complete team in 2014, which is code for the offense generating more than just the occasional three-play breather for the D. 

The season will be a success if ... the Green Wave reaches six regular season wins in its debut in the American. Yeah, it's a bit of a stretch considering the tougher schedule, but Tulane needs to aim a little higher now that it's tasted the postseason for the first time in more than a decade. This isn't the kind of program that can withstand retreats or lapses in progress. The Green Wave has to capitalize on last fall by playing like a team that needs to be considered as a perennial postseason threat. 

Key game: Aug. 28 at Tulsa. Becoming bowl-eligible for a second-straight year will require the Green Wave to capture a road game at some point during the season. A visit to Tulsa provides a realistic opportunity for a win away from Yulman Stadium. The Green Wave and the Golden Hurricane are joining the American at the same time, meaning they'll be continuing a rivalry that began almost a decade ago when both schools were Conference USA members. Tulsa is down, so Tulane cannot allow this opening at Chapman Stadium to slip away. 

2013 Fun Stats: 
- Yards per game: Tulane 310.6 -- Opponents 350.9 
- Takeaways: Tulane 35 -- Opponents 24 
- Red-zone TD%: Tulane 61% -- Opponents 43%