Monday, February 28, 2011

Top 25 Players: #1

Looking back at the Mack Brown orchestrated renaissance of mid-80s Tulane football, I am struck at how some things never change. He rebuilt Texas the exact same way- an emphasis on mobile, athletic quarterbacks and oodles of receiving talent.

I’ve worn out the keyboard here explaining just how much harder it was for Tulane to win in that Brown era, how much broader the talent base had to be to merely be .500 as a regional independent, faving week-after-week of the SEC and other quality independents: Florida State, Louisville.

Those Mack Brown teams were loaded with skill players- beginning with the quarterback Terrence Jones. Jerome McIntosh, Michael Pierce, Melvin Ferdinand, Maurice Nelson and Larry Route were all guys who would start ahead of anyone on Tulane’s receiving corps today.

But the best was Marc Zeno- the only Tulane position player to be an All-American on this list.

#1. Marc Zeno, WR (1984-1987)

Is that a groan I hear? This community has not taken well to ancient Tulane star players.

Still, Marc Zeno was created to catch football passes, nurtured in a perfect environment to catch said passes. A big target, tall and strong, good speed, excellent hands. He had a quarterback who could deliver the ball, a good running game to keep teams honest and a plethora of secondary receiving options to divert attention.

Still, Wally English could not find ways to get him on the field. But Brown did not suffer from that limitation of imagination. Zeno quickly became Ken Karcher’s favorite target- setting single season marks in both receptions (73) and receiving yards (1137)- including 208 yards versus LSU. Zeno would again break these same records as a senior (77 for 1206) with Jones pitching.

All those aforementioned skill players, coupled with high quality quarterbacking, turned Tulane into a pre C-USA offensive nightmare. Tulane just rolled teams on offense. The 1987 Independence Bowl team smashed every Tulane scoring record- and Zeno was particularly unstoppable. He left Tulane with the NCAA mark for career receiving yards (3725 yards). And despite a plethora of cartoon number receivers and quarterbacks that have filtered through here- he still holds Tulane’s career marks for catches and receiving yards (500+ more than Roydell Williams, about 700 more than JuJuan Dawson).

That NCAA career receiving record was no joke either. The pro-set offense had been in place for awhile- and big number offenses were percolating in the WAC and at Miami. Doug Flutie had already graduated- the college passing game was alive.

Plus, the Tulane schedule was again no joke either- littered with quality independents and BCS teams. There were no vacations for the offense- no five or six games against poor defenses, go hang 400+ yards on Rice and Army and UAB and I-AA squads.

Zeno was just consistent. With good hands and other receiving distractions present, you could just pencil him in for real good production again and again: 17 100-yard receiving games (still a record). The 100-yard day was a real achievement in the 80s. Immediate contemporaries at Tulane had a mere handful: Ursin had seven, McIntosh had five, Cook had three. Then look at these outfits Zeno put his 100-yard games up against: Washington, Iowa State, LSU (three times), Mississippi, Mississippi State (twice), Southern Miss, Kentucky, Virginia Tech, Memphis, TCU, Louisville (twice), TCU (twice). No UL-Monroe there.

He was a consensus All-American in 1987, and made some teams in 1986, the only player on this list to have two seasons of such national recognition.

After the 1987 campaign, Zeno had a poor off-season prepping for the NFL. He hurt his knee in workouts- and never was truly healthy again. The whispers went out too, and his stock plummeted- a seventh round pick of Steelers.

A seventh rounder has to impress quick or play special teams- Zeno did neither. He kicked around the CFL- but like Terrence Jones, he was a better all-around player, he lacked the great pro-skill or two. Add in some gimpiness- and he never got much chance to make a sustained impact. Teams will take a sustained chance on either a potentially great or healthy player- and Zeno was a gimpy, good one. It just became easy to give his roster spot away to a higher potential or healthier player- particularly in light of his inability to help the return game.


Friday, February 25, 2011

Top 25 Players: Honorable Mention

These guys were on my short list- but ultimately did not make the cut:

Erik Bruce, OG (1991-1994)- he could block, some good seasons lost amid the suffocating mediocrity.

Toney Converse, FB (1997-1999)- ideal west coast offense fullback and potential NFL draft pick, went to jail.

Floyd Dorsey, DE (1999-2002)- all C-USA player, many sacks.

PJ Franklin, WR (1995-1998)- obviously, right time, right place player- but good numbers. Ultimately a great complimentary player?

Jerry Godfrey, OL (1996-1999)- the tackles stole the show, but Bowden inherited some great offensive linemen.

Pete Hendrickson, OT (2007-2010)- high quality C-USA tackle with an absolute ton of good starts.

Jeff Liggon, WR (1993-1996)- perhaps the best special teams player in Tulane history, fourth all time in career yardage.

Trent Mackey, LB (2010-present)- unfinished, but what defensive player had that sort of impact season?

Dennis O'Sullivan, DL (1995-1998)- took the NFL to get him in the right position on offense, but hard to argue for such an extreme change in the face of such team success

Brad Palazzo, K (1995-1998)- in the class of Seth Marler

Lester Ricard, QB (2004-2006)- the poster child for Tulane football post-Bowden

Casey Roussel, P (1999-2001)- great, great, great punter

Tookie Spann, DB (1985-1987)- quality player, strong, athletic, heady.

Jeremy Williams, WR (2006-2009)- what C-USA is all about! big numbers! but ultimately, hard to value.


Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Top 25 Players: #2

Almost as quickly as the Bowden miracle happened, it ended even quicker.

Not capriciously, of course. But the advantages fell away quickly. Bowden’s offense and methodology were quickly copied (Dave Ragone was a 1999 recruit), ending a brief interlude of tactical superiority. There were some good players, notably at quarterback, but Bowden’s approach was a huge part of this success. And it was over.

The last vestiges of the latent advantage of regional independent recruiting slipped away- as bottom feeding C-USA talent procurement took hold. And, as frequently happens, an exceptional season features an exceptional talent concentration- and most key actors simply left, hastening the talent decline. Two quick coaching changes meant lost recruiting focus two years in three- and Bowden didn’t do much recruiting anyway.

So a lot of talent chickens came home to roost in 1999 as Chris Scelfo took the reins.

#2. Patrick Ramsey, QB (1998-2001)

Patrick Ramsey came to Tulane in 1997 as an odd recruit. He was a track and field star- already by 18, one the great javelin throwers in the history of US track-and-field, the holder of an actual medal at the Pan Am Games. He played football as an afterthought- and it took personal lobbying by Louisiana State great Bert Jones to get Ramsey into Tulane very late.

So he had that great arm- the only Tulane quarterback with a true “plus” NFL arm of the past 25 years. But he was not real quick, and certainly not accurate in high school. It seemed a shame to waste that rocket in a spread the ball, check down C-USA offense. If there was a guy who screamed drop back passer, protect me and I’ll get you big plays down field, it was Ramsey. Add in the incumbent Shaun King, and he was an easy red-shirt.

Yet, the buzz was there. There was zero speculation, even during the Perfect Season, who was the heir apparent at quarterback. Coaches adored his arm. And he turned out to have the same high football IQ as Shaun King- but with an actual NFL skill set to go with it. Scelfo made the decision to shoehorn Ramsey into a distribution offense.

As a sophomore, Ramsey was sensational right out of the gate – setting the school record with 3410 passing yards as a first year starting quarterback. He immediately set 20 Tulane passing records, including single season records for passing yards, attempts, and completions- shattering the season passing records set the year before.

He was simply a wonderful three year quarterback at Tulane. After setting all the season records as a sophomore, Ramsey left as a first round draft pick with nearly all of the school’s career passing records, including yardage, touchdowns, completions and attempts. Records he still holds today and in many cases, not by a little.

Ultimately, for all the noise and evaluation, playing quarterback in C-USA is about throwing the football, completing many passes and piling up totals. And Ramsey was the best.

Does it surprise you that the big-armed, big play Ramsey has the highest career completion percentage in Tulane history? He lost a few points on that percentage, and threw some picks, because that big arm had to be utilized outside the context of dink-and-dunk- but in the rote possession offense, he had no equal. He never played with more than one great receiving option at a time, the o-line was spotty, the defense a sieve (particularly in 2001)- and he just kept completing passes, generating crazy C-USA numbers.

The three-year starter made 32 career starts- all three of those years are still listed in Tulane’s top five total passing seasons. He threw a TD in an astounding 31 of those 32 starts (72 TDs total). He threw for 200+ yards in 24 starts, 300+ in 16 and 400+ in four. There is an unreal consistency there passing the football- particularly in light of some of the real game day talent disparities Tulane suffered through.

That 300+ yard number is a big one for the C-USA quarterback. It is where you start impacting the point totals in a big way, getting your team into the 30’s. (Both King and Ricard have more total starts- but only eight 300+ yards passing days each). Ramsey was the best production passer Tulane has produced- the C-USA consistent number generator, yardage producer, touchdown maker. He literally more than doubled your chances of a 300+ passing day over his immediate Tulane contemporaries.

And ultimately, quarterback is first about consistently generating the extreme C-USA passing game- the rest falls out of that (particularly in C-USA). So I give the nod to Ramsey over a talented bunch. Ramsey produced three outstanding years. Again, he produced three of top five totals in season passing yards- no one else managed it more than once. Consistent, huge numbers- over three years.

Ramsey is still going a decade later in the NFL. Drafted into a horrible situation (the Redskins under Spurrier and his pet Danny Wuerffel), he has managed to find employment because he has "straight" quarterback skills.


Sunday, February 20, 2011

Top 25 Players: #3

Part of putting together this list is realizing the 1998 campaign was no miracle. It was not a series of inexplicable events. It can be rationalized.

There were three key drivers. First, the transition from major regional independent to C-USA was not complete. The top half of the roster was still Buddy Teevens’ band from the independent days. Sure, Buddy lost almost all recruiting battles- but he lost them to other regional independents and second tier SEC programs: Mississippi, Florida State, Louisville- not C-USA dreck. As is today, the leftovers from the SEC were still materially better than C-USA base talent.

Second, Tommy Bowden successfully identified the new League’s chief strength and weakness- the surplus of smallish speed on the offensive perimeter (size seems to run out before speed at WR) coupled with the total lack of defensive secondary players who could cover. Since these factors exactly complimented one another- exponential change was possible.

But the third success criteria required identifying the quarterback who could tie this new attack all together. The player who could mentally internalize a whole new approach, physically deliver the needed performance and emotionally keep the team going despite reasons to be satisfied.

3. Shaun King, QB (1995-1998)

Shaun King is the MVP of Tulane football of the past 25 years. I honestly don’t think there is disputing that. He leveraged the aforementioned mental, physical and emotional tools in to a great two year run. That same two year run probably generated the sufficient good will to allow athletics to survive the betrayal that was Cowen’s secret athletic review.

King did play quarterback for Teevens, but it was his role as C-USA’s first cartoon number generator that marks him an iconic League figure. King inherited not only a whole new offense but a whole new offensive philosophy. It wasn’t just understanding a whole new set of plays- but a whole new football calculus: when do you take risk?

For example, Bowden threw out everything we are taught to think about first down. First down was no longer about setting up a future convertible down and distance equation. Instead, Tulane was looking to punish the defense via the pass on the one down where extra defensive backs were on the bench. 2nd and 10 was sometimes better than 2nd and 5- if it meant you had King take a shot for a bigger opportunity. The football IQ required was off the charts.

And it obviously worked. King is second on Tulane’s all-time passing lists for yards, completions, touchdowns. He still leads Tulane in career total offense and total touchdowns scored. But the undefeated season was his crowning college achievement. From his official Tulane bio:
King… had a pass efficiency rating of 183.3, which broke the NCAA single season record of 178.8 set by Danny Wuerffel. King completed 68 percent of his passes (223-of-328) to go along with 36 touchdowns and just six interceptions…. also became the first player in Division 1 A history to pass for 3,000 years (3,232) and rush for 500 (532) in an 11-game season. King finished the regular season with 168 consecutive pass attempts without an interception.
The other important point about King is that Tulane was not a perfect offense in 1998. There weren’t many great players- only one other offensive teammate made first team all C-USA (Bernard Robertson), and no skill player did. Even King’s raw ability wasn’t off the charts; his eventual NFL professional play showed the limits of his frame and arm.

But I write here on Frank Helps You Think It All Out about being “quarterbacky”- a sort of intangible ability to “get” the possession passing offense. And that is what King had- he could overcome the imperfections of both himself and teammates by throwing good balls, accurately, completely within the context of the exponential advantage Bowden gave him. Not only did he complete 68% of his career passes, but just as importantly completed those 68% to the right guys in the right situations.

Forget about the all-decade C-USA team, he is still the most important player in C-USA history- one of those few guys who changed an entire League. Drafted in the second round by Tampa Bay, he had some success as NFL quarterback. He joined a good team, good situation and good coach (Jon Gruden). But ultimately, being a distribution quarterback is hard in the NFL. You can play the risk-reward game, but ultimately there needs to be some base level of reward. It is a quarterback league, good quarterbacks have to make big plays. And King never had the arm to be a true drop-back weapon- just could never generate enough 20-, 30- yard plays downfield- to turn himself into a franchise asset.


Friday, February 18, 2011

Top 25 Players: #4

In the 1980s, the college game never did commit as completely to the forward pass culture as the NFL: the pass interference rule is still less draconian, defensive backs still get away with more, there simply aren’t enough high quality quarterbacks and available practice time to master the true NFL passing offense.

But the rise of the forward pass in the ‘80s did largely kill the alternative approaches. The veer was dead; the option was finished at Oklahoma and Nebraska by 1985. The “three yards in a cloud of dust” offensives of the Big Ten died a hard death. The increasingly athletic, passing Pac-10 routed them in Rose Bowl after Rose Bowl. The pass-crazy WAC produced a shocking 1984 national champion. What offensive innovation that did exist was increasingly from guys like Mouse Davis and LaVell Edwards.

Mack Brown was trying to figure it out too in New Orleans:

#4. Terrence Jones, QB (1985-1988)

As the nation watched Vince Young run and throw all over the place, and announcers lauded Greg Davis to the sky for the unique, intelligent package given to Young to run, the late 1980s Tulane undergraduate was forced to remark we’d seen all those same plays, those same looks, before. All Brown and Davis had to do was load Tulane game film from 1987, show it to Young, and say “Do that”.

Terrence Jones wasn’t the runner Young was. And Tulane’s approach was a bit rawer- as Terrence Jones was really an electric '80s college quarterback experiment, rather than a finished product. Nowadays, we have an idea of how to quantify good quarterback play. But, in the 80s, a lot of it was still exploratory: how much should a quarterback run? how much should you throw on first down? what is the nature of play at this position?

And the charismatic Jones (the Louisiana Jones and the Dome of Doom football poster is still the best ever) was part and parcel of that argument. As stupid prejudices against African-American quarterbacks declined, the athleticism of the position went up. The successful Jones and Brian Mitchell became prototypes for mobile yet good passers: Andre Ware, Rodney Peete, Brett Favre and Randall Cunningham.

Jones was darn successful. Introduced to the Green Wave as a running back, he complimented able senior quarterback Ken Karcher. Jones led the team in rushing in 1985 as a freshman as a tailback- and would again in 1988 as the quarterback.

So he was a great rusher (career rushing totals of 1761 yards rushing and 24 TDs), folded into a highly competent passer. Readers here know how I laud the advantages of the 60% passer. Well, Jones managed 60% too- but NOT in a possession, distribution offense.

That meant he could generate cartoon numbers in a time where they were of real value. Despite not being a creature of the C-USA era, Jones is still second all-time in total offense at Tulane, a mere 23 yards behind Shaun King (9468). He left Tulane with almost every school passing record: passing yardage (7,684), passing touchdowns (46), completions (570) and attempts (1,042). He still holds the record for most total yards in a single game: 484 versus TCU in 1986.

Accordingly, Jones finished Tulane ranked sixth in all-time NCAA total offense (just ahead of John Elway)- and was named to some All-America teams in 1988. Thanks to Jones, Tulane had a “good for all of college football” offense, an offense that could generate a 3-1 SEC mark in 1987, real legit goodness. The 1987 LSU-Tulane tilt was the last time the Green Wave took the field with enough major football talent to be "good"- and Jones was the fulcrum: 27-for-40, 316 yards, 3 TDs.

Ultimately, Jones did not have the raw arm to be a franchise NFL quarterback- and his mobility was not prized in the era of big armed NFL prospects like Troy Aikman, Jeff George and Drew Bledsoe. He was drafted late (7th round) by San Diego- but the Chargers wanted him to play defense. But the mobile quarterback was valued in Canada- so he instead played half-a-decade in the CFL with modest success. He then signed briefly with New Orleans as a wide out. It didn’t work out with Jim Mora- and Jones retired.


Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Top 25 Players: #5

Sorry for the delay- but I’ve been battling my annual tracheal infection. Back to the list.

As Tulane moved into the C-USA era, the quarterback and skill player reigned supreme. But again, the quarterback and skill player were the guys who emerged only after being sifted through the BCS filter: the distribution quarterback versus the big armed, big body, pro-style QB; the fast wide receiver versus the big fast receiver, the scat back who could really catch versus the true power franchise back.

Well, if the “best scat back who could catch” defines the C-USA running back position, the best in the history of C-USA played his college football at Tulane:

5. Mewelde Moore, RB (2000-2003)

Upfront, I think Mewelde Moore is best running back in the history of C-USA- which is high praise in a League driven by skill position excellence. Memphis’ DeAngelo Williams is both the all-time C-USA leading rusher (6026 yards) and total yards from scrimmage (6749 yards)- but those 700+ yards receiving just aren’t much in a passing League. As I've argued over the years, it is hard to translate big C-USA rushing totals into helpful actual point totals.

But who else? Damien Fletcher (USM) is the only guy with similar 6000-yard production (and again, an indifferent receiver). Matt Forte (Tulane) and Kevin Smith (UCF) would have had to play a whole extra season to approach Moore’s offensive totals.

Moore developed into the ultimate spread offense tailback weapon. Yet people forget he actually was listed as a wide receiver his first year. He was a typical C-USA wide out recruit: fast, but lacking in raw stature (5' 11"). But it was the source of his good hands and route running inteligence. So, Moore could always run and catch like a wide receiver. Then, that "idiot" Scelfo realized his good running vision and change of direction, found him a better position, and watched as Moore performed as an A-level C-USA tailback (22 career 100-yard rushing games).

So again, while he was not a true SEC power back, he was a very, very high NFL caliber “change of pace” player. Consequently, he was quick to the holes, then so scary and lethal in the second level. Even better, Tulane possessed quarterbacks who could also “distribute” the ball to Moore in the second level, no linebacker could cover him, and he piled up catches like crazy.

The supreme cartoon number generator was created. His career mark of 6050 total yards is still the Tulane mark (Matt Forte is second with 5261 yards) and was twelfth all-time in the NCAA I-A at his career’s conclusion. He also left college with both the Tulane and C-USA career rushing records (again, such a great runner in the spread offense) and receiving records (for a running back). He was a freshman all-American, C-USA freshman of the year and first team all C-USA twice. He made the all-decade C-USA team- along with Shaun King and Seth Marler.

Again, the “franchise back” is an NFL objective in the first fifty picks- and that was not Mewelde Moore. His draft stock suffered a little. But he was a clear complimentary player, selected in the fourth round by Minnesota, then moved to Pittsburgh. He has had a very fine seven year career as said complimentary player- with only one lost fumble in a career of 675 touches. Amazing.


Friday, February 11, 2011

Top 25 Players: #7-#6

Frank Helps You Think It All Out can see by the utter lack of comments that defensive players from the Mack Brown era are not the readers' cup of tea.

Fine! Back to C-USA offensive stars:

7. J.P. Losman, QB (2000-2003)

In the first and only national recruiting coup based on the '98 run, the number 3 prep quarterback transferred to Tulane from UCLA. Parade All-American J.P. Losman had come to Tulane.

Yet, while he delivered at a crazy good level, the Tulane fan never really warmed to J.P. Losman. The fan base perceived him as arrogant, stories of cockiness emanated from both the locker room and UCLA. His California cool never played just right in the Big Easy.

The funny thing about Losman is that he is more of a C-USA figure of importance than just a Tulane player. In the immediate years after the 1998 Tulane undefeated season, C-USA struggled to figure just how to adapt to Bowden's era of distribution passing. Given that the pro-body, big arm quarterback recruit was still never coming to C-USA, what did this distribution quarterback look like? How valuable was mobility? Or outright running? Did the C-USA version of the quarterback position have any correlation with the SEC or NFL version?

Teams tried a lot of solutions- one was our own Patrick Ramsey: immobile, yet big armed, shoehorned into a checkdown passing attack. But the ultimate answer turned out to be J.P. Losman- particularly when he proved he could win surrounded by nothing but skill position talent (a frequent issue faced by C-USA teams). You can draw straight line from Losman to Kevin Kolb to Chase Clement to CJ Kinne. None have giant NFL arms- but all have the same mix of pocket mobility, 60-ish completion percentage, routine accuracy and an ability to mentally manage the four and five receiver pass distribution concept. The C-USA prototype quarterback to this day is not Shaun King, but J.P. Losman.

Losman had some skill people- and flourished in the cartoon number era. He was the official starting Tulane quarterback only for two years- but threw for a huge 6754 yards, fourth all-time at Tulane. His two official starting years featured 2468 and 3077 yards respectively- only two other Tulane quarterbacks have had 3000 yard passing seasons. Plus, Losman was a very Shaun King like in game risk manager: 60 touchdown passes versus 27 interceptions (King was 70 and 34 respectively), and sports the lowest interception per attempt rate in Tulane history.

Sixty career touchdown passes- 33 and 19 his two official starting years respectively, eight as Scelfo’s odd toy behind Ramsey. That is a whole lot. Losman was a true, frightening creature of C-USA.

While Losman was a distribution quarterback at Tulane, he had some NFL skills: really good arm, athleticism, not bad size. He was a first round draft pick of the Bills and moved into a simply horrible situation there. But despite adversity, seven years later, he is still in the NFL- as the high-IQ, a guy you can survive a month with, the true professional quarterback. He lacks the size and strength combination to be a top-fifteen franchise quarterback option, but if you put the expectation of being the 22nd overall pick aside, he’s done all right- a solid pro quarterback.

6. Bernard Robertson, OT (1997-2000)

During Tulane’s miraculous undefeated run in 1998, at the Army game at West Point, I was asked who I thought was the best NFL prospect on the team? I rolled the question around in my head, and honestly, I was not trying to shock anyone when I said Bernard Robertson.

Robertson is probably the best example of a theme I have hit here several times- that Tulane’s 1998 run was fueled by applying “major regional independent talent” to a C-USA schedule. Robertson was part of that last gasp of non-C-USA recruiting: an All-district, All-West Bank and all-metro selection that would not have been out of place at Ole Miss.

Accordingly, he dominated right away- starting all but one game during his four years at Tulane, progressing smartly from right to left tackle, twice first team all-CUSA and rounding out his brilliant career as a third team all-American (ed. note: Tulane’s first position player on a national all-American team since Terrence Jones & Mitchell Price in 1988).

Unlike the other excellent offensive tackles on this list- he really belonged out there at any level, including eventually the NFL. Kropog was an excellent guard forced outside by need. Corey Geason an athletic guy who survived his size issues by the virtue of smallish C-USA fronts. But Robertson arrived a “true” tackle- the big 6’4” frame, long arms, endless leverage and quick to the edge rusher.

One of the marvels on 1998 team is that only three players made all C-USA: Robertson, King and Michael Jordan (see #23)- which gives an indication of just how important to the 1997-98 restoration Robertson was. Bowden merely showed up, and his anchor tackle just appeared.

But it was 2000, with his move to the elite LT side, when Robertson was a truly dominant player. Protecting the wholly immobile Ramsey and immature Losman over 506 season pass attempts, not only did he not allow a sack all season, but also was not credited with giving up a “hurry”. Think about that- squaring off against the other team’s best pass rusher again and again, with an offense frequently telegraphing its intention to throw, and he did not mess up even once!

So he left Tulane in 2000 as one of the best OTs in college football. Drafted by Chicago, he commenced one of the weirder pro-football odysseys. First stuck behind the wonderful pro RT James “Big Cat” Williams, the Bears then also drafted another OT (Marc Columbo), and playing time at tackle got real competitive. He got some time at tackle (five starts in 2002) and did fine for a young player being groomed- particularly in pass protection. But he jumped off-side so much it became a serious problem. He literally had the yips. The Bills then tried him as a utility guy- but he never was a road grader run blocker, which made any pro career inside problematic. He played 16 NFL games over three years. But don't worry, things seem to have turned out pretty okay for Bernard.


Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Top 25 Players: #9-#8

Today’s top 25 entries take Frank Helps You Think It All Out back to the last semi-successful gasp of regional independence- some of the good-to-decent teams that surrounded Tulane’s 1987 Independence Bowl appearance. That was an era where a minor bowl bid meant something. Washington did fly across the country to play Tulane. Grand Marshall Chuck Yeager was there too.
Nowadays, those Mack Brown teams are remembered as an offense friendly group led by the dazzling Terrence Jones and high quality minions Zeno, Pierce and McIntosh. But really, there were also a number of quality defenders. The 1987 Tulane team was a very credible SEC foe: winning three, losing one. In the three SEC games Tulane won, they allowed respectable point totals (Vanderbilt-17, Ole Miss-24, Mississippi State-19)- so it wasn’t all offense.

9. Richard Harvey, LB 1985-1988

Richard Harvey holds the middle spot of a great era of Tulane linebacking: Burrell Dent, Harvey, Pat Stant- and these guys were the anchor of said mini-renaissance of the Tulane defense during the Mack Brown era.

I’ve made this point on here before: that the overall talent level of Tulane and their opponents was much greater in the regional independent days. And Harvey personifies that. Harvey brought an NFL level of physical skill to match up with a high motor. He would have been a three year starter just about anywhere in college football.

Again, the most important linebacker skill is tackling- getting to the ball and ending the play. After a season as the top ‘backer reserve, he promptly led the team in tackles the next three years. Only Mike Staid and Anthony Cannon have more solo tackles on this list. His career tackle totals lag a bit because, unlike Staid and Cannon, he wasn’t all alone out there. Guys like Pat Stant, Tookie Spann, Eric Thomas, Burrell Dent, Mitchell Price took tackles away, and some playing time as a freshman, from Harvey.

So he was a very good player surrounded by other good players- and is still one of the all-time great guys associated with the Tulane football team. Inducted into the Tulane Hall of Fame in 1999, he is still a regular at fund raising and football related programs.

He was drafted by the Buffalo Bills- and although he was a journeyman in his pro career, he was in the League an amazing eleven years.

8. Mitchell Price, DB 1987-1989

Mitchell Price arrived in New Orleans under odd circumstances. A talented transfer from SMU, Price was the one bit of big loot Tulane scarfed up from the 1987 Death Penalty applied to Mustang football. Reports suggested that eighty schools came to try and scoop up Mustang players- but arguably Tulane emerged with the best.

Prior to the penalty, mid-1980s SMU was a scuffling, probation laden program- but still had remnants of the type of recruiting classes that had propelled Bobby Collins’ and Ron Meyer’s oufits to national status. SMU posted a record of 45-5-1 from 1980-1984, which was the highest win percentage in Division 1-A over that span.

Price was one of the prospects. A true lockdown corner, fast and strong, could jam and run with any one.

He played 35 games at Tulane, 23 of those games were versus college football teams in today’s BCS- a whole step up in class from today’s C-USA. Nevertheless, he was a routine big play producer. He had two career punt returns for touchdowns- including a 44-yard return that kept the moribund Tulane offense in the Independence Bowl for three quarters. He returned two interceptions for touchdowns as well.

Price led the team all three years he played in interceptions, his thirteen career picks breaking Ellsworth Kingery (1949-51) and Don Zimmerman’s (1930-32) Tulane career record. He was the rare Tulane player of national importance- making some down roster national all-American teams (along with QB Terrence Jones) in 1988, the last Tulane position player to be so honored until Bernard Robertson in 2000.

Drafted by the Cincinnati, he stuck around in the NFL for a few years, played 41 games with a few starts, and returned two punts in the NFL for scores.


Thursday, February 03, 2011

Top 25 Players: #11-#10

There have been a lot of bad football seasons at Tulane, but in some ways the 1996 season (2-9) was the most soul-sucking. Buddy Teevens was a rank incompetent- but 1996 was the real nadir of that experience.

As fans were to realize the following year, there was real offensive talent on that squad: a quarterback destined for greatness with obvious ability, quality receiving options. And yet they were chained to the Southern Miss power football model- annoiting Jamaican Dartez the harbinger of offensive success, rather than King, Dawson, Geason, Franklin.

Do you know much stupidness was required to limit Shaun King to 1574 yards passing? Or to not give JaJuan Dawson a start, after not letting him play at all in 1995?

Fortunately, that era was ending, a joyous exorcism coming- and the roster was loaded with quality offensive players that required a simple vision, a vision of utter destruction via the possession passing game, to flower. Today's list revisits that happy offensive transition.

11. Cory Geason, TE/OT (1994-1997)

I teased this selection yesterday- promising yet another high-level four year contributor who didn’t really register on the NFL radar. Cory Geason came to Tulane a decently recruited tight end. Four games into the season, he became a fixture upfront on the Tulane line.

He was a figure of some strategic consternation. He was a great tight end (needed) but also a very good tackle (really needed). He was a tweener: not an enormous, physical tackle and a bit slow for a skill player. But like the tweener 6’6” forward in college basketball, that flexibility can be an asset in the college game, even though it penalizes you as a pro prospect.

So, he changed position based on team need. Consequently, despite being named to the All-National Independent team on the OL, Teevens elected to slide him back to tight end in 1995 (he caught a pass in ten of eleven games) and 1996. He was a good pass catching threat and obviously, a real superior run blocker from the tight end position (a priority in the Teevens administration). He also scored a pair of odd special teams TDs: returning an on-side kick versus Cincinnati, catching a TD pass of a fake field goal versus Wake Forest. He was recognized both years as first team all C-USA at TE.

Obviously, Tommy Bowden had zero use for a run blocking tight end- so he moved him back to tackle in 1997. Geason became the best in the League at that too, accepting his third straight first team all C-USA award. A big part of the 1997 renaissance was that, despite a total change in offensive philosophy, the team’s best blocker could seamlessly adapt and continue to contribute at a first team all-League level. Geason bought them time, tactically on game day and then strategically- time to figure out just how to deploy all this talent in the wholesale philosophical upheaval.

I can’t think of any other Tulane player with three straight first team all C-USA team appearances (plus all independent as a freshman), let alone at two very distinct positions: skill and line.

Again, the same tweener body that made him such a weapon in the early days of C-USA hurt him in the NFL. Neither a hulking tackle nor a tight end who could stretch the field, he had no obvious NFL potential. But he did catch on a bit as an undrafted free agent, a tight end with Pittsburgh and Buffalo, appeared in 26 games, three career receptions.

10. JaJuan Dawson, WR (1996-1999)

Dawson was the real deal- sleek and fast, great frame. And he too flourished in the cartoon number offensive that Tommy Bowden was about to inflict cruelly on C-USA.

But Dawson is a story beyond numbers. Tommy Bowden brought a revolution to C-USA- a true ejection of tried and true. He moved away from the “little SEC” power model of USM- and into this high velocity offensive concept. Shaun King gave him the prototype high football IQ “distribution” quarterback. And JaJaun Dawson became the prototype for every C-USA #1 receiver since.

First, he was a fast, stretch the field, go to the house any and every play threat. The new C-USA offense saw the whole field as the red zone. With four or five receivers being chased by safeties recruited to stop the USM power run, any play could go the distance. Check this out: Dawson has three career 75-yard plus receptions for touchdowns. 31 career TD catches (second all-time at Tulane).

Second, he was the requisite pure numbers generator: catches, yards, scores. Get the numbers is the credo of every C-USA player. To score in the thirties and forties, your top wide out has got to stockpile contributions every week.

Dawson delivered. He amassed the needed totals- particularly impressive in light of the fact that Tulane had real surplus receiving assets from ’97-‘99. He gave up plays to real good wide outs like PJ Franklin and Adrian Burnette. Plus, he missed a good part of 1997 with injuries.

Still, he has the career mark for single season receptions (96 in 1999). His 234 career receptions is second all-time at Tulane- two behind Marc Zeno. Second most career TD receptions. Third most career receiving yardage. He would lead all these categories if not for said injury, Teevens’ dumb offense and utter inexplicable refusal to get him in to games.

Dependable? He had three streaks of 3+ 100-yard receiving games (only Marc Zeno can say the same). Twice first team all C-USA (1997, 1999). During the miracle year of 1998, he and Franklin both made the second team.

Consistent numbers, big play generator- JaJuan Dawson was a clear NFL prospect. Selected in the third round by Cleveland, he landed in the midst of a not so great situation- an expansion team with real quarterback woes (Tim Couch). He played a little as a fourth wide receiver there, than as a fifth wide out with the Colts. Wide receiver is a development position in the NFL- and he just never got a good situation to actually play.


Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Top 25 Players: #13-#12

Back to the list today, where Frank Helps You Think It All Out tries to draw a distinction between four years of great play versus a year of astounding achievement.

13. Matt Forté, RB (2004-2007)

As the ominous portent Hurricane Ivan receded in 2004, an unreal buzz was being generated by observers at Tulane fall camp, as Matt Forté was being introduced to the sideline intelligentsia. Faced with replacing two truly outstanding offensive players, Mewelde Moore and JP Losman, the news of spectacular talent was very welcome indeed.

Forté had "forte" (216 yards, three TDs versus Army his freshman year)- but took a long route to putting it together. There were surely a lot of excuses available to this impact young player- an indifferent receiver in a passing offense, nagging injuries, actual injuries, a coach who thought the road to five TDs was achieved better through Lester Ricard- and Matt Forté most assuredly hit them all. He spent three years unable to take consistent playing time away from people like Jovon Jackson.

As long as Lester Ricard was pitching at Tulane, Forté never seemed to fit in- an afterthought in an offense predicated on scoring via lots of passing. A problematic receiver (985 career receiving yards), he came off the field when Tulane played from behind, and on third down too. His occasional two-three game on-field disappearances did not engender confidence. He just wasn’t guaranteed to get going, make numbers.

But his senior year, completely devoid of quarterback talent, Toledo turned the offense over to Forté. The o-line wasn’t bad, Matt got healthy- and he simply went bonkers.

The numbers were of both national importance (2nd leading rushing average nationally) and historic (eleventh 2000+ yard rusher in major football history). He scored like a zillion touchdowns (an astounding 23 TDs actually). It was a monumental season- simply difficult to stop listing superlatives: two 300+ rushing games, five 200+ yard games, 1st team all C-USA, Senior Bowl MVP, third team all-American, etc.

Forté is hard to figure, to place on this list. It is not a question of mixing in a great season, but a truly classic one. His other three seasons were 600-ish rushing campaigns, not much in number crazy C-USA- blending some occasional amazing performances, then more than a few true headshakers sprinkled in.

At the end of 2007, Forté was still a slightly suspect pro prospect, until he was just great in all the pro-activities surrounding the Senior Bowl. Drafted in the second round by Chicago, he has been a solid NFL franchise back.

12. Mike Staid S (1991-1994)

If Matt Forté was a first-order enigma at Tulane, Mike Staid was an elite college safety now and forever: 45 games at Tulane in his era, 45 starts, all super. He led the team in tackles all four years he patrolled the defensive backfield- the only Green Wave football player ever to achieve that. The best player of the Teevens era, Mike is probably the second best “pure” college player on this list. By that, he was never a serious pro prospect- just was not the requisite physical specimen. But only that one other player, still to come, contributed at as high a level consistently for four years.

The teams he played for were oh-so-bad (one win in both 1991, 1994, two wins in 1992) as the Tulane regional independent experiment was dying fast under the inept Buddy Teevens. But the schedule was still littered by major I-A teams and players and the Wave defense was frequently overwhelmed. Staid functioned as a sort of linebacker. Prior to the C-USA passing explosion, most teams were still rushing oriented- and Tulane needed all hands on deck to stop the run. And Mike slummed in the second level, cleaning up the problem that was Tulane’s front seven- which gave him LB tackling totals as a safety.

Burnell Dent (Packers 1986-1992) is the leading tackler all-time at Tulane. Mike is second with 481, eleven behind. Another 39 tackles separates him from third place and Frank Robinson (CFL, 1981-1990). Those totals are off the charts for a safety (for example, the nice all C-USA safety Joey Dawson has less that 200 career tackles). Staid left Tulane with the most tackles for a defensive back ever in NCAA history! (ed. note: who broke Staid’s record?)

And it wasn’t like he was cheating. Tulane couldn’t defend the pass either- and he had to run with guys. So he could pass defend too- three picks in both 1991 and 1992.

Even on a terrible team, he would leap out at you as a guy who belonged out there. National accolades rolled in- 1994 first team National Independent; 1992 and 1993 first team all-South Independent- particularly impressive given the bad teams and the fact he was, again, not a pro prospect.

But Mike Staid is ultimately about first principles: tackling is the single most important collective defensive skill- get to the ball carrier and get him down- and Staid was best at that on this list.