2012 SEASON IN REVIEW: Curtis Johnson's first season as a head coach was a bumpy ride. The Green Wave faced adversity in the second game of the season when it lost senior safety Devon Walker to a career-ending spinal injury. Tulane, which finished 2-11 and in last place in the West Division in 2011, had a tough non-conference slate in 2012 as its four non-league opponents ended up with a combined 33-19 record.
Johnson's squad dropped to 0-5 right away as it lost all four of its non- conference games to Rutgers (24-12), Ole Miss (39-0), ULM (63-10) and Louisiana (41-13) along with its C-USA opener in week two at Tulsa (45-10). The Green Wave won two out of three games once it was fully entrenched in conference play, defeating SMU (27-26) and UAB (55-45) with a loss at Texas-El Paso (24-20) separating the victories. Tulane went over the 600-yard mark for the first time since 1998 and Ryan Griffin set a new program record for passing yards in a single game (466) in the win over the Blazers. The Green Wave had a disappointing finish to the year as they dropped decisions to Rice (49-47), Memphis (37-23), East Carolina (29-23) and Houston (40-17).
Johnson had not been a part of a college staff since he was the wide receivers coach for Miami-Florida from 1996-2005. He spent 2006-11 as the wide receivers coach for the New Orleans Saints, helping them achieve the 2009 Super Bowl trophy.
OFFENSE: The Green Wave have the top NFL prospect in the conference highlighting their offensive group. Senior wideout Ryan Grant bounced back from an injury that ended his 2011 after just one game to earn a spot on the C-USA First Team. He paced the league in receiving with 1,149 yards on 76 receptions, with six touchdowns. Grant had more than double the yardage of any other pass catcher on Tulane's roster last season, but junior wide receiver Justyn Shackelford (431 yards, 28 catches) laid a good foundation to build upon in his second year with the squad.
Junior quarterback Nick Montana joined the program over the offseason and is expected to step into the starting role right away. The son of NFL Hall of Fame passer Joe Montana, Nick began his career at Washington but transferred to Mt. San Antonio Junior College after being beat out by Keith Price for the coveted position atop the depth chart. Montana led his junior college unit to an 11-1 record and completed 63.2 percent of his pass attempts last year.
Senior running back Orleans Darkwa nearly eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark both his freshman (925 yards) and sophomore (924 yards) campaigns. His junior year was plagued by injuries though, which reduced his output to just 241 yards in nine games. Darkwa racked up over 100 yards rushing seven times over his first two seasons, but was not able to reach the century mark once in 2012.
The Green Wave have four starters back on the offensive line, but their returning blockers were partly responsible for the poor production in the rushing game and lack of protection in the aerial attack. Senior center Zach Morgan was missed in 2012 after he suffered an injury in the preseason. The former C-USA All-Freshman pick will be a valuable piece for Johnson and offensive coordinator Eric Price.
"If you want to win in any type of football game or any game with some consistency is be able to run the football," said Johnson. "That's one of the things that we're doing. We're drilling the running game constantly. The second thing you have to do is you have to be able to pick up the blitz. If I was playing against us, I would make sure we won't run it and make sure we blitz us. What's happening now competitively, that's what we're doing. I think we'll be markedly better with the competitiveness and with making a couple of new additions."
DEFENSE: Co-defensive coordinators Jon Sumrall and Lionel Washington enter their second year sharing the duties after an exhausting first run. Tulane was one of the weakest teams in the nation at stopping the opposition, ranking 114th in total defense (482.6 yards per game) and 115th in scoring defense (38.3 ppg).
The secondary has a future star in sophomore free safety Darion Monroe. The 5-10 defensive back paced the Green Wave in total tackles as a freshman with 96, and also recovered two fumbles, one of which he returned for a touchdown. Tulane also has experienced sophomores at cornerback in Jordan Batiste (5-8, 169) and Lorenzo Doss (5-11, 168), who both started as rookies.
"I feel very comfortable and confident with those guys back there," said Johnson on his secondary. "Lorenzo Doss was one of the leaders in the conference in interception. Darion Monroe was one of the guys who made a lot of tackles. If we feel that we can cover a receiver or two, we can put more guys in the box for the run game. It just makes us so much better game planning. It helps us with field position. It helps us with all of those things. "
Junior Matthew Bailey is the only proven linebacker on the roster coming into the fall. The Green Wave have a pair of seniors in Kyle Davis and Dominique Robertson who have waited their whole careers for the opportunity to start and finally may get the chance to alongside Bailey.
The defensive line welcomes LSU transfer Chris Davenport, who will start at tackle as he uses up his final season of eligibility. Senior nose tackle Kenny Welcome (6-2, 290) and senior end Julius Warmsley (6-2, 271) will find life easier with Davenport soaking up attention from the offensive lines of foes.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Senior kicker Cairo Santos earned the Lou Groza Award in 2012 after connecting on all 21 of his field goal attempts and 26-of-27 extra point tries. His award winning year has put him on the radar of NFL scouts, which could turn his final campaign into a showcase. Sophomore punter Peter Picerelli played in all 12 games as a true freshman and led the team in punts (69) and punting yards (2,846) with eight boots of 50-plus yards, dropping 16 inside opponents' 20-yard line and forcing 13 fair catches.
Josh Rounds and Richard Carthon shared the returning responsibilities last season. Johnson targeted players with speed for his first recruiting class and that should begin to look obvious on special teams.
OUTLOOK: Tulane will depart from the C-USA for the American Athletic Conference next season. It has a very manageable schedule as it attempts to reach a bowl game for the first time since 2002.
The Green Wave's non-conference schedule is made up of winnable games versus Jackson State, South Alabama, Syracuse and ULM. They have to face C-USA rivals Louisiana Tech, Florida Atlantic, Texas-San Antonio and Rice on the road, but have the luxury of facing North Texas, East Carolina, Tulsa and Texas-El Paso at the Superdome.
It is unlikely Tulane will capture its first conference championship since 1998, but winning six games and returning to the postseason is quite possible. Grant is going to be a game changer as long as Montana can find a way to get him the ball. The Green Wave could really excel offensively if Darkwa returns to full form.