NEW ORLEANS — Second-year Tulane coach Willie Fritz knows better than to promise the moon to college football fans in the Crescent City.
His four-win maiden season in charge of the Green Wave made it clear how much work needs to be done.
He does, however, foresee considerable progress — maybe even enough to become bowl-eligible.
“We feel good about where we’re at right now,” Fritz said. “We’re better in all areas.”
Fritz may prove everyone wrong, but many outside the program are certainly skeptical of the Wave’s ability to win. They’ve been picked to finish at the bottom of the American Athletic Conference’s West Division in the league’s preseason media poll.
But Fritz has faith that his history of building winners will overcome Tulane’s history of losing.
Considering how close Tulane came to winning the minimum six games for bowl eligibility last season — losing fourth quarter leads to SMU and Navy, as well as squandering multiple scoring chances in a 7-3 loss to Wake Forest — Fritz doesn’t see bowl aspirations as unreasonable.
Fritz has had only three losing seasons in 24 years as a head coach, which includes stints in the NAIA, Division II, FCS and FBS. Now he aims to coach Tulane to just its second bowl game in 15 seasons, and first since 2013.
Here are some defining issues facing Tulane entering the 2017 campaign:
QUICK FIX: Unsatisfied with Tulane quarterback play last season and unwilling to trust a true freshman with the job, Fritz aggressively recruited junior college transfer Jonathan Banks, who began his college career at Kansas State, but left that school after contracting mononucleosis. Banks has demonstrated the ability to run, throw, and perhaps most importantly, throw accurately on the run. In a multiple offense that contains elements of the triple option, such a skill set is critical. That, combined with Banks’ maturity and Power-5 pedigree made recruiting him a priority for Tulane.
“For our offense, we’ve got to have a quarterback who can” run and throw, Fritz said. “We’ve got to get better play at that position.”
Banks said Tulane recruited him the hardest and was first to offer a scholarship. He also saw the potential for the Wave to improve.
“This program is going to come up,” Banks said. “I feel the coaches just came in. They just started to get to know players last year. So they have a year under their belt. They’re opening the play book up more. You can just tell there’s a sense of change.”
LOST LEADERS: Tulane’s two defensive players last season — four-year starting linebacker Nico Marley and defensive tackle Tanzel Smart — are both now trying to make NFL rosters after being named All-AAC last season. While replacing those two players won’t be easy, Fritz said the unit as a whole could still be better because there are 15 returning defenders who started at least one game last season, including senior Parry Nickerson, who has 10 career interceptions. “That’s quite a few guys. We’ve got a lot of experience returning, another year in the system,” Fritz said. “So I think we’ll be better defensively.”
UP FRONT: Fritz is confident that Tulane’s offensive line will benefit from a year in the system and the return of center Junior Diaz from injury. “We’re much better there. We really are,” Fritz insisted. “It hurt us when we lost Junior. ... It’s great to have him back.”
RUNNING ROOM: Tulane has two experienced rushers in Dontrell Hilliard and Sherman Badie. The hope is that if defenses are forced to respect Banks’ dynamism, Hilliard and Badie will have more room to run when they do get the ball.
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