July 15, 2003
NEW ORLEANS, La. - Achieving balance. It's a goal of Head Coach Chris Scelfo and the Tulane Football program. It's also a phrase with many meanings.
It can refer to offensive balance - successfully mixing the run and the pass, which Tulane did last year, rushing 52 percent of the time while passing on 48 percent of its plays. That mix resulted in a second straight 1,000-yard rushing season for Mewelde Moore, a Top 10 passing season for quarterback J.P. Losman, and an offense that averaged 28 points per game.
Or, achieving balance can refer to the entire team. For Tulane last year, achieving balance meant pairing its traditionally explosive and successful offense with a speedy, attacking defense that took advantage of opponents' mistakes to force a nation-leading 43 turnovers and score six defensive touchdowns. That balance resulted in an 8-5 record and a trip to the Hawai'i Bowl, where the Green Wave defeated homestanding and heavily favored Hawai'i to record its second bowl win in the last five years.
But to Scelfo, the balance is between achieving on the field and achieving in the classroom. In 2002-03, no one did that better than Tulane as the Green Wave ranked first among all bowl teams in the graduation rates of its football players (80 percent) while continuing to raise the team grade point average.
"The big thing we've been able to achieve is the balance of being successful on the field and having as much success, or more, in the classroom," said Scelfo, who enters his fifth season as the Tulane coach in 2003. "That's the representation that Tulane University wants to have, and that I want to have as the head coach. That's what you come to college for, to compete at the highest level, both academically and athletically. We're one of the few schools in America that gives a student-athlete that opportunity."
Now, Scelfo wants to take that successful balance of athletics and academics, and the consistency that has been created on the academic side over the last four years, and extend it to the playing field.
"Our big catchphrase right now is consistency. We've got to be consistent year in and year out on the field," Scelfo said. "We've attained consistency in the classroom, and now we've got to be able to avoid the peaks and valleys of a season, a game, even a practice."
"It's statistically proven that Mewelde is, if not the best, then one of the best running backs to ever play here," Scelfo said. "But he brings more than that to the table from a standpoint of his leadership, his work ethic and his dedication on and off the field. Then you add his pass-catching abilities, his vision and his strength."
Moore's back-up is sophomore Jovon Jackson, Tulane's second-leading rusher a year ago. At the fullback spot, three-year starter Kris Coleman returns. The big (6-0, 240) back excels in a blocking role.
A key component of Tulane's successful rushing attack is tight end, where junior Bobby Hoover returns for his third season as a starter. A freshman All-American in 2001, Hoover caught 11 passes for 95 yards and a touchdown a year ago while improving significantly as a blocker. Two of back-up Jerome Landry's three catches went for scores last season.
In all, 16 players caught passes in the Green Wave's diverse offensive attack a year ago, including 10 different receivers. Eight of those 10 are back for 2003, led by preseason All-C-USA pick Roydell Williams. Slated to be Tulane's "go-to" receiver in 2002, Williams fractured his left ankle versus East Carolina and missed the remainder of the season. His career numbers of 97 catches for 1,375 yards and 14 TDs rank in the Top 15 all-time at the school. Williams' return should make a big difference in improving the consistency of the receivers in 2003. "We need guys that are going to be consistent every time they go out there, from their stance to their route-running to their decision-making to catching the football," Scelfo said.
Junior slot receiver Tristan Smith was the Wave's number one receiver a year ago with 43 catches and a team-leading five touchdown grabs. Also returning are senior Nick Narcisse, junior Chris Bush and sophomore Damarcus Davis, who combined to catch 62 passes last year. Narcisse missed four games with a shoulder injury but grabbed a 64-yard touchdown pass versus Southern Miss. Davis totalled 21 catches and two TDs, while Bush made 20 grabs. James Dunn, Carl Davis and Bubba Terranova round out the list of returnees at receiver, while newcomers Preston Brown, Kenneth Guidroz and Fred Smith will have an opportunity to contribute.
The receivers will be getting the ball from J.P. Losman, who returns for his second season as a starter after an excellent junior campaign in which he completed 57.4 percent of his passes for 2,468 yards and 19 touchdowns. More importantly, the Venice, Calif., product threw just 10 interceptions in 401 attempts. He enters 2003 with the lowest interception percentage (2.30) in school and league history.
"J.P. is a winner," Scelfo said. "He takes care of the football, he makes good decisions and he leads our ballclub. The bottom line is winning football games, and he's proven that he can do that."
While Losman is firmly entrenched as the starter, the back-up QB position is more unsettled. Redshirt freshman Nick Cannon broke and dislocated his left ankle during spring drills, while fellow redshirt Billy Don Malone was medically disqualified. True freshman Richard Irvin, who enrolled at Tulane in January, is listed behind Losman along with Cannon.
The Green Wave offensive line returns starters Chris McGee and Jimmy Kosienski at the tackle spots, along with left guard Matt Traina. McGee and Traina are sophomores who started all 13 games on the left side a year ago with McGee earning third-team Freshman All-American honors. Kosienski, a junior, returns at right tackle. A pair of sophomores - Will Blaylock and Donald Madlock - received increased playing time as the 2002 season progressed and are prepared to step in at center and right guard, respectively.
Joe Traina, twin brother of Matt, will compete for playing time at center while Tulane will work to develop stable back-ups from a group that includes sophomore Willie Christian and freshmen Mark Burgess, Derek Rogers and Scott Holt.
"On offense, our strength is our quarterback and running back," Scelfo said. "Hopefully, Roydell Williams coming back will give us some strength at receiver. Our offensive line should be improved, but we're still developing there. There's no question we have some talent on offense. We just need to get everyone on the same page at the same time to make it work."
Marler, the 2001 Lou Groza Award winner, was stellar in all aspects of the kicking game last year. He averaged 42 yards per punt; just 34 of his 76 kickoffs were returned; and he added to his Tulane and C-USA record numbers for field goals and points.
Freshmen Barrett Pepper and Chris Beckman are slated to step in for Marler at kicker and punter, respectively. Pepper is a true freshman from Bastrop, La. who was a first team All-State and All-Southeast Region selection following his senior season. A three-time all-state selection out of Mississippi, Beckman averaged 41 yards per punt as a senior in high school in 2001.
Elpheage averaged 16.5 yards per punt return and 25.2 yards per kickoff return to rank fifth and 19th, respectively, in those NCAA categories. Entering August, the return jobs are wide open and will be hotly contested among both returning players and incoming freshmen.
The strength of the 2003 defense is at linebacker, where five players with significant experience return to fill three spots, including 2002 starters Anthony Cannon, Brandt Quick and Wesley Heath at the weak, middle and strong sides, respectively.
"We've got some experience coming back at linebacker," Scelfo said. "We've got some guys that can run. We've increased our speed, and the leadership has to come from that group."
Cannon was one of the nation's top true freshmen last year, ranking second nationally in tackles by a freshman while leading the Green Wave with 114 stops. 2001 starter Brandon Spincer, who collected 65 tackles his freshman year before sitting out the 2002 campaign, will be in the mix on either the weak or strong side, where two-year starter Heath returns with his 147 career tackles. Sophomore Antonio Mason will also compete for playing time at linebacker. In the middle, former fullback Quick made 97 tackles on the year, 70 of those coming after he moved into the starting role in game seven. He is backed up by junior Blake Baker, who collected five sacks last year to lead Tulane's returning defenders.
On the inside, senior Terrence Tarver and junior Wallace "Bamm" Mateen are listed as the starters at defensive tackle. Tarver has spent the last three seasons in a back-up role, while Mateen started seven games as a freshman in 2001 and made 28 tackles. He added 14 stops and recovered three fumbles last season while playing in all 13 games.
A trio of redshirt freshmen - Taurean Brown, Michael Purcell and Taylor Bertin - were listed as second team linemen following spring drills; several newcomers will also be looked to provide immediate help come August as the Wave signed six defensive linemen for 2003. "Due to sheer numbers, obviously the defensive line has to have some freshmen come in and play," Scelfo said. "They will all get a look, that's for sure."
In the secondary, the safety spots will be manned by juniors Tra Boger (strong) and Joey Dawson (free). Boger started seven games in 2001 and has tallied 117 tackles over the last two years, along with three interceptions. The Georgia native has more interceptions than any other returning player on the Green Wave defense. Dawson backed up Quentin Brown at free safety a year ago and collected 45 tackles. Senior Winfred Brown, redshirt freshman Terrence Peterson and sophomore Tommy Griffin, Jr., also will compete for playing time at safety. At cornerback, Tulane must replace the tandem of Lynaris Elpheage, who ranked second in the nation last year in passes defended with 29 (8 INTs, 21 PBUs) and Jeff Sanchez. Moving into their spots for 2003 are sophomores Sean Lucas and Bruce Youmans. Lucas made quite an impact as a true freshman, scoring three defensive TDs while serving as Tulane's nickel back. He compiled 54 tackles and 2.5 quarterback sacks while breaking up eight passes. Youmans saw action primarily on special teams last season but came on strong during spring drills.
"We made some strides in the secondary this spring as Sean (Lucas) and Bruce (Youmans) really played well," Scelfo said. "Overall, there is a great deal of young talent on our defense and they are ready to show what they can do. With more game experience, I think this could develop into a special group."
The season opens versus defending Conference USA champ TCU in the Superdome on Labor Day night in a nationally-televised game that pits the only two C-USA teams to win bowl games in 2002. Five days later, Tulane and Northwestern State tee it up for the first time since 1940, in a night game at Gormley. The Green Wave and Mississippi State meet Sept. 13th in the Superdome before Tulane takes its first road trip of the season to challenge nemesis Army. The road doesn't get any easier after that, as Tulane takes on Texas on Sept. 27th in Austin. "We've got a very demanding schedule, especially early," Scelfo said. "September is going to be a grind for us. Our players are going to have to be ready to accept the challenges that are presented to them."
The Green Wave plays host to Houston Oct. 11 in the Homecoming game at Tad Gormley Stadium. Last year's encounter with Navy was a resounding success with a sell-out crowd enjoying tailgating, the Homecoming parade and post-game concert in addition to the Tulane win. Tulane and Louisville play an ESPN nationally-televised Friday night contest from Papa John's Cardinal Stadium before the Wave plays Memphis in the Superdome Oct. 25th. Then comes a November road stretch - at Navy (Nov. 1), UAB (Nov. 8) and Southern Miss (Nov. 15) before the regular season ends with a Superdome game versus East Carolina.
Again in 2003, five bowl bids are up for grabs among the record (with the addition of South Florida) 11 Conference USA teams. The conference champion will play in the AXA Liberty Bowl in Memphis, while bowl berths are also available in Hawai'i, New Orleans, Mobile and Fort Worth.
"The number of (good) players in our league has really increased in the last 3-4 years," Scelfo said. "I think our conference, week in and week out, is a very demanding conference. On any given Saturday in our league, anybody can beat anybody. There's not a 'gimme' you can circle as a win."