Tulane coach Curtis Johnson expects maturing Green Wave to vie for second bowl in 3 seasons



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NEW ORLEANS — Tulane coach Curtis Johnson is eager to see what his relatively young squad has gained from a year defined by change.

Last season was Tulane's first in a new, on-campus stadium, and in a news conference. There were numerous freshman in starting or regular roles.

Now the home field, the American Athletic Conference and the college game in general are all more familiar to the players Johnson will rely on to get the Green Wave back into bowl contention after a 3-9 2014 campaign.

"I would be very disappointed if we didn't get to a bowl game," said Johnson, who coached Tulane to the New Orleans Bowl two seasons ago. "It's a tough schedule, but if you look at who we have, with the athleticism, we just need to cut down on our mistakes. Also, we need to cut down on the silly penalties and understand the game plan a lot better."

Among the freshmen thrust into starting roles last season was quarterback Tanner Lee. The 6-foot-4 New Orleans native at times demonstrated the potential to be prolific, but was too often erratic behind shaky protection that allowed him to get beat up last year. He finished with 14 interceptions compared to 12 touchdowns.

"We were turning the ball over too much, some Tanner's fault, some not," Johnson said. "Some of the kids he's playing with were freshmen, too, and all of sudden they're playing in games on national television. Now this year, I think things have calmed down a lot more and the game has slowed down for those guys."

Here are some plot lines heading into Tulane's 2015 season, which begins Sept. 3, at home, against Duke:

YOUTH AND EXPERIENCE: About two-thirds of the Green Wave's roster is classified as underclassmen, with 29 sophomores and 36 freshmen, 12 of which are in their second seasons with the program, having taken a red shirt in 2014. The good news for Tulane is that some of their most talented players are sophomores, including running back Sherman Badie, receiver Teddy Veal, tight end Charles Jones and cornerback Parry Nickerson. Projected starting QB Tanner Lee is also a sophomore. In fact, despite Tulane's youth, nine of 11 starters are back on offense and seven of 11 on defense.

LEGEND'S LEGACY: Nico Marley — grandson of late reggae music icon Bob Marley — is Tulane's leading returning tackler. The relatively undersized linebacker (5-foot-10, 208 pounds) recorded 82 tackles (46 solo) last season, including 13.5 stops for losses, which ranked first overall on the team in 2014. Nico Marley's father, Rohan, played for Miami in the early 1990s.

DEFENSIVE OPENINGS: Several key players on defense were lost last offseason to graduation or the NFL draft. The Green Wave will replace defensive end Tyler Gilbert, safety Sam Scofield, cornerback Lorenzo Doss and nickel back Taurean Nixon. Doss and Nixon both were drafted by Denver.

RUNNERS RETURN: Tulane has retained running backs who accounted for 90 percent of its production on the ground last season. They include the speedy Badie, who gained 688 yards despite being limited by lower leg injuries; junior power back Lazedrick Thompson who rushed for 533 yards; and sophomore Dontrell Hilliard who gained 452 yards.

KICKING CONCERNS: Johnson opened up competition among place kickers to push sophomore Andrew DiRocco, who was 8-of-15 on field goals last season with a long of 42 yards and also missed two extra points.

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