Aug. 12, 2006
NEW ORLEANS, La. - A year ago, the Tulane University football season was halted almost before it started as Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans and the Gulf South Region. Forced to flee the city, the Green Wave took refuge in Ruston, La., and the campus of Louisiana Tech for the 2005 fall semester, and played 11 games in 11 weeks in 11 different stadiums.
As the team prepares for the 2006 season, there is a new feeling surrounding the Green Wave squad. One of optimism. One of promise. A concept that could prove to be one of the most awe-inspiring success stories of the in the history of college athletics. After going through a unprecedented series of events last year that helped the team bond like no other, Tulane is back on campus, back in the city of New Orleans, and back in its home since 1975 - the Louisiana Superdome.
And while being back home is an encouraging side note to the preseason hype, the Green Wave are not without solid substance on its roster as Tulane returns 42 lettermen, including 12 starters, from last year's squad. Among the returning starters on offense are two-year starting quarterback Lester Ricard, the team's leading running back Matt Forté, a pair of starting wideouts in Kenneth Guidroz and 2005 All-Conference USA honoree Preston Brown, and two offensive linemen (Michael Parenton and Derek Rogers).
Defensively, the Green Wave return four defensive linemen who started in 2005 - seniors Taurean Brown and Mike Purcell, and juniors Alvin Johnson and preseason All C-USA selection Antonio Harris. Senior cornerback/return specialist Israel Route also returns to the club to help anchor the secondary.
On special teams, senior Chris Beckman returns for his fourth season as the team's punter, as does place kicker Barrett Pepper. Pepper served primarily as the kickoff specialist last year, and helping Tulane's cause in the battle for field position are Route and junior Fred Smith, who missed the 2005 season with a preseason knee injury. Tulane also returns Craig Gelhardt as its deep snapper.
"I think the players are excited about being back and having a chance to play in the 'Dome in front of the home crowd," Tulane head coach Chris Scelfo said. "We've got to replace some outstanding players on the defensive side of the football, and several offensive linemen that have been key for us, but, this is an opportunity for someone else to step up and show what they can do.
"Every program in the country has to fill holes from year to year, and I feel confident in our ability to fill the holes left by the players who graduated. We're starting from scratch at a lot of positions and guys have to earn their way there. But to be back home and have a schedule from top to bottom that is the most demanding that we've ever had since I've been here is a big motivating factor for myself and the team. I think that the players are very excited about it."
One of the mainstays of the Tulane football team over the past decade has been offensive prowess. The Green Wave's last three starting quarterbacks were all drafted in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft, and since the 1998 season, Tulane has sent two more running backs and an offensive tackled to pro football's premier league.
That does not figure to change much in 2006 with the return of Ricard, who has started 17 of the 19 games he has played in since transferring to Tulane prior to the 2003 season. In two seasons, Ricard ranks third in Tulane history in passing yards per game (200.7) and pass attempts per game (29.16) and is tied for fourth in 300-yard passing games (five). Ricard's 55.8 completion percentage ranks sixth in Tulane history and his 37 touchdown passes are tied for sixth.
Last year, Ricard threw for 1,932 yards and 16 touchdowns while sharing time with then redshirt-freshman Scott Elliot. Elliot played in seven games in 2005, including three starts, and passed for 515 yards and four scores while completing 52.2 percent of his 92 passes. Also adding experience to the set of signal callers is fifth-year senior Nick Cannon.
Hill comes to Tulane after a stellar prep career at Cedar Grove (Ga.) High where he threw for 1,468 yards and eight touchdowns en route to earning first-team All-Dekalb County honors. Moore, meanwhile, was named to the National Top 50 quarterback by Scout.com and Dallas Morning News Top 10 as a senior at Flower Mound Marcus (Texas) High School. As a prepster, Moore passed for 4,513 yards and 32 touchdowns during his career.
"Obviously, the quarterback position is the key to the offense," Scelfo said. "If Lester can regain his confidence, composure and leadership that he had developed two years ago, he will be fine. Having Scott Elliot start a few games for us last year gives a guy that has played in a few games and did well."
Regardless of who wins the quarterback battle in the fall, they will have the luxury of throwing passes to a deep, experience receiving corps anchored by Brown.
Seeing his first extensive time at the wideout position, Brown led the team last year with 47 catches for 720 yards and six touchdowns. Other returning receivers include Guidroz, fifth-year senior DeMarcus Davis, redshirt-junior Fred Smith, sophomores Michael Batiste, Brian King and Charles Harris, redshirt-freshmen Chris Dunn and Jeremy Williams, and incoming rookies Alan Mitchell and Casey Robottom.
Davis and Guidroz both played in all 11 games in 2005, combining for 41 catches, 430 yards and three touchdowns. Batiste, King and Harris all saw time last year as true freshmen, and King led the trio with 15 catches for 189 yards and a score.
Dunn and Williams used the redshirt year to adjust to college life and continue to develop in the weight room. Mitchell enters the foray after snaring 90 passes and scoring 13 touchdowns during his prep career at Cedar Grove (Ga.) High, while Robottom earned all-state, all-Metro and all-district honors last season after catching 40 passes for 623 yards ad five scores at St. Charles Catholic High School.
"At receiver, I think we've got a group that if they play together, learn together and develop a great work ethic, can be an outstanding group," Scelfo said. "This is the biggest group of receivers we've had since I've been at Tulane. We've got guys that can really go up and catch the ball.
"Preston Brown had a big year for us last season and Damarcus Davis has had a solid career here so far. If we could get Fred Smith back to the level he was at before his injury, that would be a big key for us. But we've got about three or four younger guys there who I think are ready to take the next step. We've got a good talented, deep group of receivers there."
Landry stands as the most experience player at the position with 32 games under his belt as a tight end, but Radcliff may be the most complete tight end on the roster with a blend of soft hands and big body that provide not only a viable target in the aerial attack but also solid blocking ability on the corner. Kessler played in 10 games last season as a true freshman, but did not record a reception, and Gelhardt serves primarily as the team's deep snapper on special teams.
"I feel good about our tight end situation," Scelfo said. "The guy that I think has all-star potential in Gabe Ratcliff. He's had an outstanding spring and summer, and I really look forward to watching him develop this fall. We've also got Jerome Landry back, and hopefully he's healthy. Justin Kessler is an outstanding receiver, and he continues to work hard on improving his blocking. Those three guys, if we can keep them healthy, have a chance to be a good group."
Taking the pressure off the passing game is a solid corps of running backs, highlighted by the return of junior Matt Forté. Forté has galloped for 1,279 yards in two seasons with the Green Wave, including a team-leading 655 yards and four scores last season. He also has shown soft hands out of the backfield with 43 receptions for 343 yards and another three touchdowns.
Primarily used on special teams, Boudreaux has run for 168 yards and two touchdowns while snaring seven passes for 48 yards in his two years at Tulane. Tuyo has played in 19 games, including three starts, during his collegiate career, while Miller returns to the club after taking a year off in 2005.
Anderson was a first-team All-DeKalb County and Prep Star All-Region selection at Stephenson High School last year where he ran for 1,827 yards and 16 touchdowns. Ivey, meanwhile, was a first-team all-state running back last year at Crescent City Christian where he ran for 741 yards and average 26.4 yards per carry with nine scores in 2005.
"We've got some proven and some very impressive freshmen among our running backs this year," Scelfo said. "Matt Forté has been one of our workhorses over the last two years, and he was very impressive during spring drills. Ade Tuyo is a solid blocking back, and we've got some good change-of-pace players like Ray Boudreaux, André Anderson and Kevin Ivey. This is a solid group of backs, and one that we will count on heavily throughout the season."
Opening holes for the running game and setting up protection for passing plays is a solid and veteran group of offensive linemen, which returns a pair of starters from a year ago in Michael Parenton and Derek Rogers and adds the return of a healthy Donald Madlock, who missed all of the 2005 season after undergoing successful shoulder surgery.
Parenton, a 2005 C-USA All-Freshman Team honoree, and Rogers combined to start 20 games last season. Madlock returns after starting at guard in both 2003 and 2004. Other returnees along the offensive line are Aryan Barto, Chris Bordelon, Scott Holt, Percy Huff, Troy Kropog, John Landa, Travis Olexa and Tyler Rice.
Holt and Kropog combined to play in 10 games in 2005, including two starts at right tackle by Kropog. Landa, Olexa and Rice all redshirted last season.
Joining the team in 2006 are true freshmen Pete Hendrickson, Nick Landry and Kevin Leary. Hendrickson (6-5, 265) was an all-district selection last season at Jesuit (Fla.) High, Landry was named to the Beaumont Enterprise Super Team after a standout year at Westbrook (Texas) High School, and Leary comes to Tulane after earning three letters at Westchester (Pa.) East High and playing last season at Valley Forge Military Prep.
"Offensive line wise, I think our starting five has a chance to be very strong," Scelfo said. "After that we're going to have to count on some incoming freshman especially at the tackle positions."
The Green Wave defense will have a bit of a new look in 2006 as the team lost all three starting linebackers and three-quarters of the starting secondary due to graduation.
One of the expected strong points, however, will be the defensive line where all four starters are back, another nine veterans return and five tre freshmen join the rotation.
Joining the position for the 2006 season are true freshmen defensive ends Tony Bryant of Grady (Ga.) High, Logan Kelley of Cypress Creek (Texas) High, Cody Sparks of Bridge City (Texas), High and Troy Wilson of Fork Union Military Academy, as well as rookie defensive tackle Oscar Ponce de Leon of nearby John Curtis Christian School.
"We've got a lot of guys back along the defensive line, and added some players in the recruiting process that we think will really help us up front," Scelfo said. "Football is a game that can be won in the trenches, and we feel we have the quality and depth at the defensive line position to control the line of scrimmage and help make up for some inexperienced players playing behind them."
While the defensive line is deep and experience, the linebacking corps was ravaged following the 2005 season due to graduation. All three starters from a year ago - Anthony Cannon, Antonio Mason and Brandon Spincer - are part of Tulane history, and the Green Wave will count on some new faces in new places in 2006.
Heading into preseason practice, senior Terrence Peterson is penciled in on the strong side, while sophomores Jordan Ellis and James Dillard will be counted on to take over the middle and weak-side positions, respectively.
Peterson is the most experience player of the three, appearing in 30 games - primarily on special teams - in three years with the Green Wave. Dillard played in 10 games last season as a true freshman, recording seven tackles, including a season-best three stops and a tackle for loss against Marshall. Ellis, meanwhile, played in seven games as a rookie in 2005, including a start against Rice when he posted a career-best six tackles.
Lee played in all 11 games last year, posting 25 tackles, including one and a half for loss, while Kirksey and McMurchy redshirted.
James comes to Tulane after a standout career at Bethel (Va.) High School and a year at Fork Union Military Academy. Kwentua earned all-state and Baton Rouge Advocate All-Metro honors last season after posting 93 tackles at University (La.) High, and McKinney was a second-team all-district honoree at Clear Lake (Texas) High School where he tallied 81 tackles, including 17 for loss and two sacks, and picked off a pair of passes.
Mitzel, meanwhile, ranked among the Top 30 linebackers in Texas by Rivals.com an in the Top 20 by Dave Campbell's Texas Football Magazine after posting 304 tackles - including 26 for loss - during a stellar prep career at Keller (Texas) High.
"We lost three senior linebackers, and whenever you lose that much experience at one position, it makes it tough," Scelfo said. "We've got a group of guys in the core there that has a chance to learn and develop. We're really going to have to rely on our defensive line to be the key for us. Those guys are going to have to take control of the line of scrimmage and give our linebackers a chance to develop."
In the secondary, Route stands as the lone returning starter, and is expected to be joined in the every-day lineup by fellow senior Jeremy Foreman at the other corner position while juniors Joe Goosby and Carlis Jackson manning the safety slots.
Route enters the season with 134 career tackles, a sack, three forced fumbles, 14 pass break-ups and a pair of interceptions to his name in three previous seasons combined. With his aggressive, ball-hawking style of play, Route always seems to be around the ball and has a knack for making big plays.
Foreman has played in 30 games, including 17 starts, entering the 2006 season and has 71 tackles, two forced fumbles, six pass break-ups and three interceptions to his credit. He started all 11 games in 2004 when he tallied a career-best 36 tackles, including 23 solo stops.
Goosby and Jackson have combined for 57 tackles in the past two seasons. Goosby has played in all 22 games during his career, including one start each season, and Jackson played in the first eight games of the 2005 season before missing the last three contests with an injury.
Also vying for playing time are returners O'Lindsey Brown, Matt Harding, Josh Lumar, Christian Okoye, David Skehan, Corey Sonnier and Louis Thomas, along with true freshmen Travis Burks, Shannon Davis, Chinonso Echebelem, Archie Gainous and Alex Wacha.
"We lost a lot of safeties in guys like Tra Boger and Sean Lucas that started a lot of football for us," Scelfo said. "But we've got some guys there in Joe Goosby, and some incoming freshmen that I think have potential to be really good.
"I feel really good about our corner situation, with Izzy Route, Jeremy Foreman, and Matt Harding. Those three guys have all competed well, and Matt played a lot for us last year, so I feel good with those guys being strong on the edges."
Special teams should be another strong point for the Green Wave in 2006 with the return of Beckman, return specialists Route and Smith, and deep snapper Gelhardt.
Beckman, who missed the final two games of the 2005 season after suffering a gunshot wound in a hunting accident, is fully recovered and brings a career 42.4 yard-per-punt average to the field-position battle. Smith and Route have game-changing ability with their return prowess, and Gelhardt will once again provide a solid centerpiece along the offensive line on special teams plays.
Thevenot, meanwhile, lettered three years as a punter and placekicker at St. Louis Catholic High in Lake Charles, La., where he earned first-team all-state honors in his final two prep seasons and first-team all-district and all-Southwest Louisiana honors all three seasons. As a prepster, Thevenot connected on 20-of-30 field goal attempts, while averaging 41.7 yards per punt and posting 27 touchbacks in 29 kickoffs as a senior.
"I feel very good our kicking game with Chris Beckman coming back healthy, and Craig Gelhardt doing the snapping," Scelfo said. "I think we've got an outstanding combination there. We've got to be a lot more consistent on our kickoffs and field goals. I think that's going to be critical for us this year. Barrett Pepper is back, and we also signed Ross Thevenot to come in and compete for this job."
The Green Wave will face one of the most daunting schedules of the Scelfo era in 2006, including three road games against teams from the Southeastern Conference (Mississippi State on Sept. 16, LSU on Sept. 23 and Auburn on Oct. 21).
Tulane also has the tough task of playing its first three games on the road before playing its first game in the Louisiana Superdome in almost two years on Sept. 30 in a nationally-televised contest against C-USA foe SMU. The team will also play 12 games in as many weeks after enjoying an open during the season's opening weekend.
Following a three-game road slate at Houston, Mississippi State and LSU, and the SMU contest, Tulane will play its second straight game in the 'Dome on Oct. 7 against Rice before embarking on two-game road swing against UTEP (Oct. 14) and Auburn. From there, Tulane will celebrate "Homecoming 2006" against Army on Oct. 28, before closing out the regular season with five straight C-USA ballgames.
Tulane will travel to Marshall on Nov. 4, host Southern Miss and UCF on Nov. 11 and 18, respectively, and close out the season on Nov. 24 at Tulsa.
The Conference USA Championship game is slated for Dec. 2 at the home of the league team with the best regular season record, and the winner of that ballgame will receive the conference's berth in the 2006 AutoZone Liberty Bowl in Memphis, Tenn.
"We start with three games on the road against three really good opponents, and we're playing 12 straight weekends," Scelfo said. "It's going to be an exciting year, a year we're going to have to bear down and condition for mentally, physically, and emotionally. There are going to be some highs and lows. As long as minimize the lows and capitalize on the highs, we have a chance to be a good football team."