July 28, 2004
NEW ORLEANS, La. - Questions, questions, and more questions.
It's the stuff football preseasons are made of. For the Tulane Green Wave, the 2004 football season might as well be one big question mark.
The queries facing Tulane Head Coach Chris Scelfo, who enters his sixth season as the Green Wave mentor in 2004, are endless.
Who will become the latest in the line of Tulane starting quarterbacks that includes NFL-ers Shaun King, Patrick Ramsey and J.P. Losman? How do you replace the most productive back in Tulane and Conference USA history? What newcomers will emerge on the offensive line to challenge a unit that returns five starters? Which stars of 2001 and 2002 will return from injury to reclaim their starting roles? Where will the 2004 incoming freshmen make the biggest impact? Why does seemingly every position on the depth chart list two possibilities for starters? Who will emerge as the "go to" players on a young team featuring just 12 seniors and 60 underclassmen?
"Roydell has had a solid career so far, but I know he is focused on making his senior year his best season," Scelfo said. "He's a guy with great ability who has worked hard since he's been here to improve every aspect of his game. He's come back bigger, stronger and healthier than ever. There's no question we're looking for great things from him in 2004."
But for answers to the remainder of the questions, Scelfo must wait until August, and possibly even beyond. The return of some injured veterans, the continued development of last year's freshman, and an influx of newcomers on both sides of the ball, makes the starting line-up for the season opener with Mississippi State impossible to predict, even for the Green Wave coach.
Namely, running back Mewelde Moore and quarterback J.P. Losman, now plying their talents with the NFL's Minnesota Vikings and Buffalo Bills, respectively. Moore, the school's all-time leading rusher, was a four-year starter who accumulated more than 6,500 all-purpose yards during his time at Tulane, and Losman became the Green Wave's highest NFL draft selection in 42 years after throwing for over 5,500 yards in 25 games over the last two seasons.
"There's no question those are big shoes to fill," Scelfo said. "But J.P. had to step in and replace a good quarterback in Patrick Ramsey, and Patrick took over for Shaun King. It's the nature of college football. Players graduate and move on, and there's an opportunity for the next generation to step up.
"There's uncertainty, but there's also excitement to see who will make a name for themselves this season."
If one of those players does not emerge early, Scelfo is not averse to using more than one player at the position.
"It may not be decided until early fall, but I'm not opposed to going into the season rolling the quarterbacks until one establishes himself," Scelfo said.
Whoever the quarterback is, he'll throw to a corps of veteran receivers at the position that has been called the strength of the offense. Leading the way is Williams. A preseason all-star candidate, he was a first-team All-Conference USA receiver in 2003, despite playing at less than 100 percent while continuing to recover from the fractured ankle he suffered in 2002. Sore ankle and all, the LaPlace, La. native caught 56 passes for 1,006 yards, just the eighth 1,000-yard receiving season in school history. With similar totals in 2004, Williams is poised to rank among the school's top three receivers by the end of his senior year.
But Williams is not the whole story at wide receiver. In Chris Bush, Tristan Smith and Carl Davis, the Wave features three seniors who have combined for 205 catches and 2,395 receiving yards during their Tulane careers. Speedster Bush, a high school teammate of Williams, has averaged 15.7 yards per catch with 56 grabs for 878 yards in his career. Smith specializes in the quick catch and go, as the slot receiver with 1,116 career all-purpose yards has 102 grabs for 887 receiving yards during his tenure with the Green Wave. Davis is a sure-handed local product who has made 47 career catches for 630 yards.
Junior Bubba Terranova and sophomore Damarcus Davis bring plenty of game experience to the receiving unit, while Fred Smith literally burst onto the scene as a return specialist a year ago, but has a chance to become an impact receiver in 2004.
"Receiver is a position where we have talent and experience," Scelfo said. "It's a position where we need to cut down on the mistakes of the past and do the little things better. If we can do that, and our quarterbacks are effective in getting them the ball, this position will be a strength of our offense."
Another spot that boasts plenty of experience is the offensive line, which returns all five starters from a year ago. Left tackle Chris McGee, a junior, has been Tulane's top lineman in each of the last two seasons while on the opposite side, Jimmy Kosienski is a two-year starter and the lone senior in the line-up. Twins Matt and Joe Traina line up alongside each other at left guard and center. Besides McGee, Matt was the only other Green Wave lineman to grade out to an average of 80 percent or better for the season, while Joe won a preseason battle for the center spot in 2003 and never relinquished it. Both are juniors as is guard Donald Madlock, who enters his second year as a starter in 2004.
As a freshman a year ago, Derek Rogers saw significant playing time as the line's "sixth man" and challenged for a starting job throughout the year. Scelfo will be looking for that kind of breakthrough contribution from a group of young linemen in 2004, among them sophomores Robert Hand and Mark Burgess, and redshirt freshmen Scott Holt, Aryan Barto and Chris Bordelon.
"It's a luxury to have all five starters returning on the offensive line," Scelfo said. "We're in a position this season where we hope to build some depth along the line while seeing improvement across the board. We'll need them to play well for our offense to be effective."
Running behind that line will be a relatively fresh face, although junior Jovon Jackson enjoyed success late last season after stepping in for Moore. The 5-11, 206-pound back rushed for 377 yards on 82 carries a year ago, with 183 of that total coming at UAB where he scored a pair of touchdowns, including one on an 85-yard run to seal the Green Wave victory.
"Jovon (Jackson) stepped up last season when Mo went down and [redshirt freshman] Ray Boudreaux had a nice spring," Scelfo said. "We'll have a look at everyone in the preseason and take it from there."
Freshmen may also figure in the mix at fullback, and at tight end, where 2002 starter Bobby Hoover returns. Hoover, a Freshman All-American in 2001, spent last year on the sidelines with a broken leg. However, 2003 starter Jerome Landry suffered a knee injury during spring drills and after surgery, his timetable to return is unknown. In addition to Wood, Tye Graham, another player who spent 2003 recovering from injury, could fill the dual tight end/fullback role.
Thrust into the starting kicker's role as a true freshman, Barrett Pepper came up big early as his first career field goal was a 32-yard game-winner with six seconds left versus Mississippi State. He hit 40-of-43 PATs and showed off a variety of kickoffs. He will be challenged by redshirt freshman Nick Beucher, a walk-on from Howey, Fla., who also serves as the Wave's back-up punter.
After opening his career with a 100-yard return for a touchdown versus TCU before a national television audience, Fred Smith went on to average 21.8 yards per kickoff return. By the end of the season, his 38 returns and 830 yards ranked second on the single-season charts. Smith was also Tulane's top punt returner as he brought back 10 kicks for 105 yards, with a season-long 45-yard effort in the UAB game. In addition to Smith, defensive backs Bruce Youmans, Israel Route and Sean Lucas saw action in a return role last year.
"I've never been through a season like the one we had a year ago in terms of injuries on the defensive side of the ball," Scelfo said. "To lose two complete defensive lines...I just hope I never see it again. The good thing about it is, we came through it and we will be a stronger defense, and a stronger team, because of it."
The strength of that defense is expected to be the secondary, where the quartet of Sean Lucas, Tra Boger, Joey Dawson and Bruce Youmans return. The four were the most opportunistic group on the Tulane defense a year ago as they combined to force nine fumbles, recovering seven, and intercepted eight passes while breaking up 19.
All started at least five games in 2003, led by Lucas, an all-star candidate at cornerback who was one of only two players on defense to start all 12 games a year ago. The Green Wave's most consistent defender in 2003, the junior from Lithonia, Ga. intercepted a team-leading five passes and was credited with 102 tackles on his way to third team All-Conference USA honors.
Youmans, the least experienced of the four starting defensive backs, led the team with seven pass break-ups. He will have to fend off a challenge from sophomore Israel Route, the starter at nickel back last season and a C-USA All-Freshman honoree.
At strong safety, Boger enters his senior season with 250 career tackles, more than any other player on the team. The second-team all-league choice led Tulane with 133 tackles a year ago, more than doubling his previous season high. Brandon Spincer, a starting linebacker a year ago, moved to strong safety in the spring and will back-up Boger, along with Terrence Peterson.
At free safety, senior Joey Dawson ranked fifth in the nation with four fumbles forced in nine games, and he added 80 tackles. Junior Darren Sapp battled injuries in 2002 and 2003 but is back to work behind Dawson along with Christian Merritt, who earned a letter as a walk-on a year ago.
"Sean Lucas set the tone for the secondary with solid play a year ago, and has the potential to really excel on this defense," Scelfo said. "As a group, the secondary made some things happen in the turnover game, but we need improved consistency as a unit."
The defensive line will benefit from consistency as well - especially if the same foursome is able to line up for more than one game in a row - something that did not happen a year ago. The return to health of juniors Michael Roberts, Bamm Mateen and Michael Purcell will bolster the line and bring maturity back to the line-up. They will join a battle-tested quintet of sophomores in ends Craig Morris and Billy Harrison and tackles Taurean Brown, Alvin Johnson and Tremell Jack.
Harrison, a C-USA All-Freshman choice, led Tulane with 7.5 tackles for loss and 11 quarterback hurries. He made one of the biggest defensive plays of the season by batting down a pass and picking it off early in the UAB game to set up a Tulane touchdown. Brown collected 6.5 tackles for loss to rank second on the team.
However, the line could get even younger as the Green Wave signed eight freshmen defensive linemen who will arrive in August and no doubt be hungry to make an impact in their rookie campaigns.
"Well, we've got 18 defensive linemen on the roster so I don't think we'll have to move any wide receivers over there," said Scelfo with a smile. "If, and it's still an if, the juniors come back ready to play, and last year's freshmen continue to develop, we could see a turnaround on the line. It got started a little bit at the end of last season and we need to continue that improvement in order to be a good defense."
"The linebacking situation is similar to the defensive line," Scelfo said. "We've got a veteran group returning, and we've got the youngsters who began to develop last year. If we can get all of them going, this has a chance to be a solid linebacking group."
The next week, Tulane opens its home schedule in the Superdome versus Florida A&M in the first of three straight September home games for the Green Wave. The Conference USA schedule gets started Sept. 18 when Louisville comes to town, followed by a contest with defending C-USA champ Southern Miss to close out the month.
"September will be very challenging, first with the game at Mississippi State and then closing out by opening the conference season with two of the top teams in the league," Scelfo said.
After the first of two open dates in the schedule on Oct. 2, the Green Wave plays its only back-to-back road games of the year with trips to East Carolina and Memphis. On Oct. 23, Tulane returns to New Orleans for its lone home game of the month when its plays host to UAB in the annual Homecoming game at Tad Gormley Stadium. Then it's back on the road, for the third time in four weeks, on Oct. 30 versus Houston.
"October will be a tough stretch when we go on the road for three out of four games," Scelfo said. "The conference continues to improve each year and there are no easy games, especially when you go on the road."
The Green Wave entertains the military academies in back-to-back weeks at the Superdome as first Navy (Nov. 6) and then Army (Nov. 13) visit New Orleans. Following the team's second open date on Nov. 20, Tulane concludes the regular season Nov. 27 at TCU.
"It's once again a challenging schedule," Scelfo said. "We need to compete at our highest levels week in and week out to have a chance to win. The only way to do that is to focus on one game at a time. The most important game on our schedule is whoever is next and right now, that's Mississippi State."