Oct. 14, 2002
NEW ORLEANS, La. - A COMFORT ZONE Thirteen hundred and twenty-nine yards. After five games last season, that was how many yards the Green Wave defense had allowed through the air. The Green Wave secondary was being blistered by opposing quarterbacks during those five games and had seen opponents complete 19 pass plays for 20 yards or more, including five of 40 yards or more. Not surprisingly, the Green Wave was allowing 42.4 points per game.
"We [the secondary and the defense] take a lot of pride in our performance," said senior cornerback Jeff Sanchez. "We were one of the bottom teams in the country in pass defense last year. After that, we said we want to be one of the best secondaries in the country. We may not get the recognition that some of the bigger schools get, but I think we are one of the better secondaries in the country."
The work of Sanchez and his 2002 teammates in the secondary has paid dividends, as evidenced by just eight pass plays of 20 yards or more in the first five games of 2002. And just two plays over 30 yards through the air. In those five games, the 2002 version of the Green Wave had allowed just 28.6 points per game.
While secondary players such as cornerback Lynaris Elpheage and safety Adrian Mitchell had standout seasons in 2001, Sanchez - known as 'Slick' to his teammates - struggled to become comfortable at his corner position. His improved comfort level this season is a key reason for the improved secondary and overall defense of the Green Wave.
"Last year, I was very uncomfortable and I guess some of my performance on the field showed that," Sanchez said in evaluating his play in 2001. "This year I am more relaxed. I have the experience now and I am enjoying playing defensive back."
"Slick has more experience and feels more comfortable this year." Elpheage, a close friend, added. "He always was a great athlete, now he knows the game better and can use both." Sanchez' performance was hardly lackluster last season as he used his athleticism to produce solid stats. He started all 12 games at right cornerback, breaking up 14 passes and adding a pair of interceptions, including one he returned 79 yards for a touchdown against UAB. He also registered 58 tackles to rank eighth on the team.
However, the 5-10 speedster, who is recognized as one of the fastest players on the Green Wave roster, had good reason for not being comfortable at the cornerback slot - he had arrived at Tulane as a potential star running back.
As a high school senior, Sanchez rushed for 1,432 yards at Archbishop Hannan High School in nearby Meraux. He was recognized as one of the top players in the New Orleans area, and his dreams centered on continuing as an offensive star at Tulane.
After a freshman year of being shuttled back and forth between offense, defense and special teams, Sanchez started the 2000 season listed as the starter at running back. But when injury sidelined him early in the season, allowing a young freshman back named Mewelde Moore to emerge, Sanchez made the unusual request to move to defensive back in the middle of the 2000 campaign. The coaching staff and Sanchez quickly saw that a move to full-time defender would benefit the Green Wave in the long run by keeping Moore on the field while also taking advantage of Sanchez' impressive athletic ability.
"[We made the move because] we thought he had the quickness, the speed and the athletic ability to stay with receivers," said defensive backs coach Joey Houston. "He still has a lot of work to do, but he has improved a lot since last year. He is just more comfortable out there."
Sanchez points to being a key part of the team and a standout player as things that he was looking for from college football. Despite not taking the path he expected, he has found that feeling.
"The first couple of years when I played offense and switched back and forth to defense, I wasn't really a big factor," Sanchez said. "I didn't feel that I was a true asset to this football team. Now, my role has stepped up a lot. I feel like I am a vital part of this team, I am a key to our success. If I don't play well, we don't play well."
"Jeff has come a long way," said head coach Chris Scelfo. "He has really developed as a corner. He is more comfortable and has a lot more confidence."
While Sanchez may have had doubts about his college decision in his early years with the Green Wave, all of that has passed as he settles into the stretch run of his final year with the Olive and Blue.
"When I was making a decision on what school to go to, a lot of the hometown folks encouraged me to stay home and play for my hometown school," he said. "I like walking out on the field and seeing my mom and my two sisters waiting for me. I take a lot of pride in playing for the school I grew up with.
"Both on and off the field, [the greatest thing about Tulane] has been the people I have met, the many friends I have made from places all over the country. I cherish all of those friends."
Like nearly any college athlete, Sanchez ponders the potential of a professional career. Tulane has given him plenty of examples to follow. Last season, eight former Green Wave players saw action in NFL uniforms and Sanchez's three-year teammate Patrick Ramsey was a first-round draft pick by the Washington Redskins in the 2002 draft. Bernard Robertson (Chicago Bears), JaJuan Dawson (Houston Texans), Kerwin Cook (Seattle Seahawks) and Tim Carter (New Orleans Saints) are also former teammates of Sanchez who have seen action at the highest level of the sport.
But despite the NFL dreams, Sanchez realizes that reality may mean the end of his football career. In preparation for that possibility, the Meraux native is on track to graduate in December. In just three and a half years, Sanchez will hold a Tulane degree in organizational information technology.
"It encourages me a lot [to see Tulane players in the NFL]. All of those guys were here when I was here," Sanchez said. "I have seen the work they have put into their careers and I am trying to do the same thing. I feel that I have a chance of making it at the next level so I am going to give myself every opportunity to do that, and if it doesn't happen, I'm still going to have my degree."