Looking up: Tulane banking on big improvement from hungry defense | Tulane

Tulane defensive coordinator Jack Curtis did not hesitate when asked about the potential of his group entering coach Willie Fritz’s fifth year.

“It’s the best one we’ve had since we’ve been here,” he said. “We’ve got the talent and the depth.”

Loaded with experience, the defense plans to make amends for last season, when it fell short of its own high expectations despite some decent numbers. The Green Wave gave up fewer yards (377.0 compared to 406.8) and ranked higher in pass defense efficiency (39th compared to 53rd) than a year earlier, but American Athletic Conference opponents scored more than 30 points five times — more than double the total of two in 2018 — while the sack total plummeted to 21 from 41.

Tulane slipped to 3-5 in the AAC after finishing 5-3 a year earlier. The defense deserved part of the blame. 

“We were all right at times,” Fritz said. “We had an excellent year the year before, and people did some things against us to nullify us doing some of the things we had success with in 2018, so we’ve worked on that an awful lot, and I feel good about where we are.”

The optimism starts up front with the same four starters as in the past two years, a luxury few teams have. Cameron Sample and joker Patrick Johnson, a pair of seniors, are the bookends. Redshirt senior De’Andre Williams and junior Jeffery Johnson operate inside.

“We felt pretty good about them then (two years ago),” Curtis said. “Nothing’s changed except we feel a little bit better.”

With the exception of Williams (59 tackles), none of them posted the stats they wanted in 2019 considering a preseason billing as maybe the best defensive line in the AAC. Patrick Johnson in particular, playing through a torn labrum for the second half of the year, finished with 35 tackles, 8½ tackles for loss, four sacks and zero forced fumbles after those numbers were 48, 16, 10½ and four in 2018. Teams neutralized him with frequent double teams, and Sample, coming off a knee injury, could not make them pay, registering 1½ sacks.

The way Sample has practiced in preseason camp, opponents will face a much tougher task.

“He’s really picked his game up, and it’s going to help Pat,” Curtis said. “Everybody was turning their protection to where Pat was, but if they do that again, Cam’s going to have a tremendous year. They are going to have to worry about both those guys.”

The Wave boasts four inside linebackers whom Fritz considers starter quality, each with different skill sets. The likely starters are senior Marvin Moody (132 career tackles) and graduate transfer Kevin Henry (Oklahoma State). The top backups are junior Nick Anderson, who made 26 tackles last year in his first year with the team, and sophomore Dorian Williams, who played in 11 games as a freshman.

“The thing we’ve seen more so this season than probably at any other time is the physicality they’re playing with,” Curtis said. “They feel really comfortable in the defense now and understand how they’re taking on blocks. We are further along in in what we’re doing than at any time since I’ve been here.”

Too light for Division I a year ago, Dorian Williams bulked up 20 pounds to 220 while adding speed. He has roamed 40 yards downfield to break up passes in preseason practice.

“We are a great crew altogether,” he said. “One person’s weakness may be the other one’s strength. It’s going to be a show for sure.”

It is a similar situation for the Wave’s five-man secondary. Curtis sees improvement even with the loss of cornerback Thakarius Keyes, a seventh-round NFL draft pick, Senior Jaylon Monroe (16 career starts) and Florida State grad transfer Kyle Meyers, a former four-star recruit, have drawn praise for their tight coverage as the starting cornerbacks. Senior Chase Kuerschen (23 career starts, team-high 76 tackles in 2019) returns at free safety, with junior Larry Brooks, who made interceptions in Tulane’s last two games, at strong safety.

The first-team nickelback, redshirt junior William Langham, has played in 24 games. The top reserve at nickel and safety, grad transfer Ajani Kerr, played in 29 games with four starts at Georgia Tech.

“I’m very confident in our group,” Kerr said. “I think we can match up with anybody across the country.”

The experience across the board will allow some talented freshmen to work their way into the lineup rather than feeling pressure immediately. Fritz and Curtis mentioned safety Cornelius Dyson, a Kentwood product, cornerback Kevaris Hall and defensive tackle Adonis Friloux of Hahnville as impactful newcomers.

Curtis loves the blend of proven performers and young potential.

“We have a great culture,” he said. “They enjoy coming out and practicing every day and are hungry because they can see how good they are. We’ve got something special going on here.”


Fritz said the Wave held an 87-play closed scrimmage at the Superdome on Saturday morning, working on four-minute and two-minute drills along with red zone possessions. … Fritz said safety Macon Clark, a top reserve, has returned to practice after a two-week quarantine because of COVID-19 contact tracing.

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