First-year Tulane head coach Willie Fritz thought he had a good defense coming into the season. After two games the Green Wave yielded just a single touchdown in a loss to Wake Forest and two offensive TDs in a home victory over Southern University.
“We thought that that could be a strength for us this season,” he said. “A lot of guys have playing experience; a lot of guys have starting experience. We’ve got some depth up front, led by an outstanding player, Tanzel Smart. We have linebackers that have played quite a bit, led by Nico Marley – he’s another explosive type player.”
The unit will face its stiffest test this weekend when Navy brings a 2-0 record and the triple-option offense to New Orleans.
This week, Tulane coaches limited their film review of the Southern game to create additional time to prepare for the Navy offensive scheme. “We also got our scout teams together on Monday and did work with them, so they understand stances, alignments and motions. People think they’re a pretty simple attack, but they’re complex in their own right with some of their blocking schemes and plays that they run,” said Fritz.
All Naval Academy students are on scholarship in return for their subsequent military service, so the Mids have the large roster numbers needed to practice the triple option. The offense takes a physical toll on defensive players as the scheme relies on healthy doses of effective – and legal – cut blocking to level the field and the Mids’ larger opponents.
It also takes its toll on quarterbacks. Navy allots an equal amount of snaps to its starter and his backup each week to prepare for injuries such as the one that befell senior Tago Smith against Fordham in Week 1. Fellow senior Will Worth started in a victory over UConn last week and will be under center against Tulane.
“We are not blessed with a lot of numbers here. Right now I’ve got 70 healthy bodies on the team. We’re not going to get a whole lot of walk-ons at Tulane. So we’ve got to service ourselves; the offense will service the defense and the defense will service the offense. So it’s a little bit more like the NFL model than what it is like at other schools,” said Fritz.
The coach said his scout squad, which typically operates from a shotgun/pistol in mirroring the pervading offensive schemes of FBS football, will employ an unusual tactic of two footballs on a single snap to cut down on time perfecting the quarterback-center exchange.
“We’re doing a lot of snapping under center. One of the things that we’ll do — and I think everybody does this — is use a Nerf ball. The quarterback already has the ball underneath the center’s rear, so you don’t have to worry about the snap exchange ever, which is great,” said Fritz. Defense linemen can visually react to the snapped Nerf ball.
At Georgia Southern, where Fritz was the successful coach for two seasons prior to arriving at Tulane, option football is synonymous with the program name. Finding players on his team familiar with the offense was a simpler task.
“When I look at Georgia Southern, we were an under-center triple option team before I got there. Every once in awhile those guys would get [back] under center, and it was amazing how low they made themselves. It’s almost like they’re hiding behind the center. Our guys were 6-0, 6-1, but they’d get down there and they’d look like they were 5-5,” said Fritz.
At 6-1 and 205 pounds, Worth is bigger than the typical Navy option quarterback of recent years. Like his successors, he’s effectively mastered the option tenets of “getting small” behind center, pressing low and parallel to his line with the ball, and handling the intricate quarterback-fullback mesh.
One way Tulane will slow the Navy attack is to possess the ball offensively and keep Worth and company on the sidelines. Fritz admits that for any new head coach one of the most daunting, and requisite, tasks is forming a cohesive offensive line from players that he did not recruit.
“We’re trying to get [the offense] established as quickly as we can. We’ve got inexperience at the quarterback position, and we’ve got some inexperience on the offensive line,” said Fritz. “We feel like we’ve got an opportunity to have a very good offensive line. We’re still a work in progress. Junior Diaz, our center, played extremely well this past week. John Leglue played really well the first week and played well this past week. We need to get some other guys stepping up and playing at that same level.”
The offense will rely on redshirt sophomore quarterback Glen Cuiellette and junior running back Dontrell Hilliard. Hilliard is averaging 8.2 yards per carry through two games and has three touchdowns. Tulane will also employ diverse tempos to keep the Mids’ defense guessing.
“We change speeds. Sometimes we’ll go real fast; sometimes we’ll use a regular pace; sometimes we’ll milk the clock,” said Fritz. “We’ve got to give the defense rest and do a great job of ball security. We can’t give them short fields. If you give them long fields, they get a couple of first downs, and you’ve still got opportunities to hold them and make them punt. If you give them short fields, you’ve got problems.”
The head coach also knows that the game is a crucial American Athletic Conference battle for his team — both in establishing a winning tradition at their still relatively new home at Yulman Stadium and in staying competitive against a Navy team that has quickly developed into one of the conference’s best.
“A big game for us without question. We had a great crowd last week and want to build on it. It’s going to be a tremendous challenge. We’ve got a lot of respect for Coach Ken [Niumatalolo] and what they’ve done at Navy. They run a good program, and so this is an excellent opportunity for us to gauge where we’re at right now,” said the head coach.
Photo courtesy Tulane Athletics