Tulane coach Curtis Johnson cautiously optimistic about joining AAC

Asked if his goal was to get to six wins last year at Tulane’s preseason media day, football coach Curtis Johnson said he wanted and expected more than six.

The Green Wave backed up his boldness by going 7-6, but he took a more conservative approach for 2014 Tuesday morning during the American Athletic Conference spring coaches’ teleconference. The step up in competition from second-tier Conference USA to the second-year AAC toned down his optimism.

“This is going to be a mighty challenge for us now,” Johnson said. “This conference is very tough. We’ve just got to prepare ourselves, get our minds and bodies together and take this challenge. This is a little bit of an uphill battle for us right now.”

UCF, the defending AAC champion, whipped Baylor 52-42 in the Fiesta Bowl and climbed to 10th in the final Associated Press poll. The only Conference USA team that received any votes in that poll was East Carolina, which got two and is joining the AAC along with Tulane.

Tulsa, which won the C-USA championship in four of the previous eight years, is a new member of the AAC, too.

Returning AAC member Cincinnati, which finished eighth in the 2009 AP poll, was ranked among the top 25 three other times since 2007.

Throw in Houston, an eight-game winner in 2013, along with South Florida, which had the highest-rated recruiting class this past February among the 11 AAC teams, and Johnson’s reticence is understandable.

The AAC is not thinking small.

“Our goal is not to simply hang in there with anyone,” Commissioner Mike Aresco said. “Our goal is to compete and to win. We went out the Fiesta Bowl and you saw what happened.”

By halting Tulane’s string of 10 losing seasons, Johnson and his staff indicated they were on the right path. He liked the Wave’s progress in spring practice, which ended in February before most schools had conducted their first workout.

He singled out defensive ends Royce LaFrance and Tyler Gilbert, who figure to play huge roles on a front four that lost stalwart tackles Julius Warmsley and Chris Davenport. He praised the secondary, which returns leading tackler Sam Scofield, Darion Monroe and cornerback Lorenzo Doss, who had seven interceptions.

Johnson said he felt the offense made progress, too, despite losing fifth-round NFL draft pick Ryan Grant (77 catches, 1,039 yards) and running back Orleans Darkwa (team-high 863 rushing yards) from a unit that ranked 115th out of 123 Bowl Subdivision teams in total yards.

The key was the emergence of redshirt freshman running back Sherman Badie, a former John Curtis star.

“In order to win in this conference, to win late in some of these games, you have to have a running game,” Johnson said. “Sherman Badie did a fantastic job for us in the spring.”

The question is whether that improvement will translate in the AAC.

“It’s just an incredible upgrade of getting a much more competitive across-the-board every week kind of schedule,” Tulsa coach Bill Blankenship said. “The consistent kind of success the teams that we’ve seen throughout the teams that have joined the league is going to elevate all of us.”

For that reason, Johnson would not trade Tulane’s new digs for its old ones.

“We know it’s going to be tough,” he said. “But this is an ideal conference for what we aspire to do and what we want to be in the not-so-distant future.”

Tulane gets 6th commitment

Tulane isn’t waiting until the summer to fill up its 2015 recruiting class.

The Green Wave added Chaz Key from Iowa High School on Tuesday afternoon, the sixth member of the class and second name added to the list within the last week.

The Iowa running back (5-foot10, 172 pounds) is expected to transition to cornerback at the college level despite racking up 1,240 rushing yards on 194 carries while scoring 17 touchdowns as a junior ball-carrier.

He ran a 4.46-second 40-yard dash, a 4.45-second shuttle run and vertically leaping 29 inches at the 2014 U.S. Army National Combine in San Antonio.

Key is the first 2015 commit from outside southeast Louisiana, living 200 miles west of the university on Interstate 10. Running back Devin Glenn, safety Jeremie Francis, cornerback Taris Shenall and defensive tackle Brian Webb all come from the New Orleans area while offensive lineman Keeyon Smart plays at McKinley in Baton Rouge.