Tulane head coach Curtis Johnson just completed his third season at Tulane. After a promising Bowl birth last season, the Wave took a step back in the new American Athletic Conference, finishing 3-9. Inconsistency and inexperience on offense and special teams plagued Tulane all season, but Johnson loves where this team is heading.
Tulane Hullabalo: First off, what’s going on with recruiting?
Football Head Coach Curtis Johnson: It’s going to be an exciting class. We do something a little different than probably a lot of people in the past. What we’ve done is we target guys real early in the recruiting process.
And so by doing it so early and getting your target guys down, you get almost a whole year, and you’re really very familiar with these guys now, so we really did a good job early on and now we’re really kind of moving on to the 2016 kids.
There are about 4 or 5 kids out there that we’re really, really going after but most of our class is committed, and we’re really happy to have them. They will be a welcome addition.
Hull: With a new conference and the new stadium – there are so many different factors now for recruiting – what are your biggest selling points now?
CJ: I love New Orleans. You got to sell it. The food is just awesome, everybody loves the food. It’s a mini vacation when these kids and these parents come down on trips.
Tulane is probably one of the best schools in the country – the size, the academics are so good, the law school is awesome, the business school, you know all these schools are world renowned schools, so you sell that.
And now that we have a stadium, we have something to look at, we bring guys out there and show them the fans, the fans are phenomenal. When they come into the games and see the tailgaters, it’s just a great atmosphere being around here, it’s a wonderful place.
Hull: What, for you specifically, has been working a lot with recruits? What specific selling point?
CJ: Now that we have a stadium, I think that’s the number one thing, now we have a stadium. And you look at us, we’ve been on television, I think there was only one game that we were not on ESPN.
Everybody’s excuse was “you guys don’t come on television enough.” Now, everybody’s on television.
Also the conference. I think this is a really tough conference, it’s a little bit tougher, or a lot tougher than I thought it would be. You know, you look at what Connecticut does in basketball, you look at Central Florida, they won their deal last year. East Carolina almost beat Florida this year, they put 70 points on North Carolina, so this is a great conference, a great football conference.
Hull: Do you think you’ll be able to compete with LSU in the future? I mean, they’re really the only Louisiana team besides Louisiana-Lafayette that really has a prominent football market.
CJ: I think so, I think you got to build toward that, you know some of the other sports may have a better chance early on right now, but once we get going and we get a couple classes in here and we get cycled through some stuff, I think we could compete with them.[LSU has] some good players, I think the guys do a phenomenal job up there, they are one of the top teams in the SEC. But I think as we continue, I don’t think we’ll just all of the sudden get a bunch of kids in here that go “let’s go compete with LSU,” but I think as you do, you build with time, you know these younger kids, as they come up and they mature, I think I like our chances.
Hull: You had a bowl game last year, new conference, new stadium, new quarterback. A lot of moving parts, but you finished 3-9.
CJ: Yeah, a disappointing record. You never want to say three wins. But I think I was very encouraged by the number of freshmen we played. I’ve never been in a situation, pro football, college football where I had to play that many freshmen.
You know the closest thing I had was at the University of Miami in 1997, we played a bunch of freshmen and we went 5-6. But those freshmen were Reggie Wayne, Santana Moss, Dan Morgan, you know it was just a bunch of great players, but they didn’t have any experience. And what even added to it, new quarterback who is a freshman, freshmen around him.
I’m very encouraged because I think they will all grow together. You watch the games, it was just tough on those young kids, but I think the maturity of them, just growing, getting in the weight room and getting bigger, faster, stronger, I think these kids will be better. Definitely not happy with 3-9, but encouraged by the young kids that we have on our team.
Hull: There were a few bad blowout losses this season. It seemed like the team had a huge problem with maintaining focus throughout a game. What do you say to the team afterwards or during the game to try to get them to refocus?
CJ: Here’s the thing with focus in youth, I try not to tell them to focus on the whole game or anything like that, I tell them to focus on one thing at a time. You focus on one play, the next play, and the next play.
If we can get the one play right, you can go onto the next one and then move onto the next one. We don’t even talk about winning a quarter. I got to talk about winning the play. You know, just win this one play and then we move onto the next one.
Next year, I think it will be a little different. I don’t even like when they hold their hands up fourth quarter because I don’t even want to think about it from the four quarters to the end of the game, I want to think about the next play. Don’t jump off sides, let’s not beat ourselves. I think some of the time that’s one of the things we did and we have to improve on that.
Hull: This offense has the potential to be so explosive. Tanner’s got pro-talent, three running backs that can really run the ball and an up-and-coming receiving corps – what needs to happen to take them to next level next year?
CJ: I think the best thing about it is they’ll have another year together. Last year a lot of those kids, especially the receivers, the tight ends and even Tanner, Tanner was swimming and fishing a little bit in the conference, not playing, whatever.
Some of these kids never had a spring ball, some of them never played in an offseason, never had a summer. Now we have a whole cycle with the same guys, everybody kind of knows their role, and now we can cycle the whole thing through. Once we cycle through this whole thing, I think this offense will be very, very explosive. They will understand their job descriptions, what needs to be done.
The problem with the freshmen was you’re throwing the freshman in there and he doesn’t even know how to line up, he barely knows what a huddle is, and now you expect him to play. But I think they did fine for what we asked them to do.
Hull: Tanner looked like the next big thing the first half of that Georgia Tech game, but then he left. I was on the sidelines during the game, he looked woozy and upset and he didn’t look the same the rest of the season. Do you think there is a correlation to that?
CJ: I think what happened, Georgia Tech has a good defense, they’re big and they’re fast. You don’t like the quarterback to get hit. He has to be a little bit smarter with throwing the ball away.
If you ask me, I thought he did great against Georgia Tech, he took some hits and he wasn’t the same that game. But if you go to the first half of the Rutgers game, I felt he was off to his best start. It was easy for him, it looked easy, but then he got hurt again.
A lot of these wounds are self-inflicting growing pains. You watch experienced guys, they throw the ball away, they check down to the backs; Tanner will get that, but he wants to make the big play all the time. I think he will do it. Again, it takes a little time, a little more experience, but I think he will have that thing figured out.
Hull: You’re always saying how Tanner is ‘cool,’ he’s got that ‘California cool.’ But do you want a little bit more fire out of him? When you guys start to fall behind in games, there’s not enough push from anyone, it seems, to kind of get back in it.
CJ: One of the things with this team, one of my biggest issues is the leadership. He’ll have more fire this year, but it’s hard being a freshman when you’ve got a guy that played three or four years, and now you’re getting after him, and Tanner is still trying to figure his game out a little bit too. I think the leadership stuff will come.
This is his team now. Last year he was in a quarterback battle with Montana, Powell. Now it’s his team so he can corral them all together. Now he’s the leader of the whole group, whereas last year, no one was really the leader, they were all really competing. So now you can tell him, “Run that route properly. This is the protection we’re doing. This is how we line up.” And when it’s time to get after somebody, he can legitimately get after them, because he’s been in the foxhole with them.
Hull: The secondary is taking a huge hit. You’re losing Lorenzo [Doss], [Taureen] Nixon and Sam Scofield. What’s the identity now?
CJ: One thing I like about Louisiana is there are always skilled kids. You look around and there are more defensive backs in the NFL from the state of Louisiana than anywhere else. So I think you have skilled kids everywhere and we have proved that freshmen can play defensive back. Lorenzo Doss was a freshman when he played, Parry Nickerson was a freshman when he played, [Darion] Monroe played as a freshman, I think Sam was a sophomore when he played.
So I think with this recruiting class, why I’m so excited about it is because there’re some young, good-looking, fast, winning corners and safeties that we have coming in here that’s going to be out of sight. I really, really like the skill in Louisiana, just the skills of the receivers and the defensive backs and those guys. We’ll be a little young there, but I think we’ll be fine because we’re old up front now.
Hull: You finished 3 and 9 this year, the schedule is not getting much easier. Obviously you preach patience, but how long is youth going to be an excuse for this team?
CJ: I don’t think it was an excuse because when you’re young, you’re young. But there really is no excuse now because now, you’ve been here. You’ve been in every stadium; you’ve been in this cycle for a whole year, now it’s time for us to put up. Now we’re going to get outmanned with some with these sophomores, but it’s time to win some games, it’s time to go and let’s play. Let’s not turn the ball over, let’s not have all these penalties.
And if they beat us, they beat us. But now it’s time. Some of the youthful mistakes were just silly penalties, just jumping off sides, holding at the wrong time. But now it’s time to play. Let’s play to win.
Hull: Two seasons ago, just me looking in the box at a special teams play, I would hardly even look. You would expect Cairo [Santos] to make the field goal and the coverage to be solid. This year it was the most volatile part of the team. What happened and how are you going to fix it?
CJ: Here’s the first issue with the kicker – we went out two years ago when Cairo won the Lou Groza award to get a kicker. You got a guy coming back that made all these kicks. So we just couldn’t land one, and I hate putting a freshman, a true freshman in that position, but it happened
Now we just have to get better, [Andrew DiRocco] is going to be better. Our long snapper got injured, that’s going to be better.
The problem with the coverage teams is when you’re playing in a program your first year, hopefully we get to this point, but your first year freshman, you redshirt. Second year they begin to play on special teams. Third year they begin to play at starter, fourth year they begin to really thrive as a starter, and then fifth year they’re just outstanding.
Well the problem was that our first year players were starters on offense and defense, second year players were our best players and so we just had so many young players playing on scrimmage downs. Our special teams really, really took a hit last year, but I think our coverage teams will be better.
Hull: What were the biggest surprises for you this season?
CJ: I thought the fan support was outstanding. That student section was just magnificent. It’s the best feeling. I couldn’t even imagine this environment, it was better than I ever even imagined, and that was a surprise.
The teams are better than I ever thought they would be. You look up and say, “Golly, we can beat Cincinnati.” Well when they walked in the building, they’re just bigger and they’re physical and they can run. These teams were better and I think we’re going to get better.
You know, just the class and the league, this league is a good football league. It was a surprise how good it was, how impressive it was. Those things were encouraging.
Hull: What are your expectations for next season?
CJ: We got to look clean to me. That’s my whole thing now. We got to perform and we got to execute like a good football team.
Hull: Are you going to change the offense at all now that you’ve kind of seen Tanner and the backs?
CJ: The offense is so versatile. There will be some moving parts, there’ll be more stuff we can do. I don’t know that we’ll run a totally different offense, we’re not going to be Georgia Tech, we aren’t running the dive option.
I don’t want Tanner getting hit. We’re going to run a pro-style, drop-back, run the football, throw it, play action. But now that this quarterback is a year older, we can do more with the offense.
Hull: Who on this team now do you think could make it to the next level?
CJ: A lot of guys could. If guys can run, if they’re big enough, I hate to call names, but I’ll tell you, if you look through these classes, there will be more kids, more younger kids that will go to the next level. I don’t want to say names because one guy will come up to me and say “Hey, why didn’t you say me?”
I think through this process, through these next three or four years, there will be a lot more guys going to the next level. The bottom line is if we win, which we will, they will get a lot more looks.