NEW ORLEANS - The Tulane football program is experiencing a transformation, with a new head coach Curtis Johnson guiding the ship.
One key component of not only the Green Wave defense, but someone who will be a team leader is senior middle linebacker Trent Mackey,
Named Conference-USA's preseason Defensive Player of the Year by the league's coaches, Mackey enters his third season as a starter.
The Port Sulphur native returns with 279 career tackles, 145 coming in 2011. He also had 14 tackles for loss, one fumbles returned, 4.5 sacks and an interception returned for a score.
Mackey (5'11-227) is the first defensive player since Anthony Cannon in 1995 to surpass 100 tackles in a season for the Tulane program.
Long-time NFL veteran and assistant Lionel Washington is also part of the Green Wave defensive equation. The defensive coordinator's position is a two-headed monster shared by Washington, who notched 37 career interceptions as an NFL defensive back, and Jon Sumrall, recently of San Diego University.
The new staff brings optimism to the program. It also brings a philosophical shake-up.
"It's a totally different defense," Mackey explained regarding the difference between 2011 and the current defensive approach. "It's a simpler defense. Now, it's just read-and-react."
Mackey says the Green Wave will use many different packages but the coaches will continue to stress the basics.
"They put you in a position to make plays. They trust us. They know who to put where. We can think fast and play fast. The 2011 defense required a lot to learn. Every formation, every defense, we had a check. Now we do one thing and go with it. Whatever (defense) we're in, we're going with it."
It appears some of the old formalities - and at times separation - between coach and player have been removed, making for more of a family environment. "The new coaching staff has a lot of energy," Mackey beamed. "The staff is really good. It's easier to communicate (with coaches). We love being around them ."
Johnson, in his first year as a collegiate head coach, answers to "C.J." while Washington is called "Speedy." The relaxed tone has been easy for veterans like Mackey to embrace.
"The younger players still call them 'coach'," Mackey added with a smile. "You can talk to the coaches; the door is always open. C.J. will stop what he's doing. It makes you feel important."
Named to the Bronko Nagurski and Lombardi Award watch list, Mackey has been lifted into the national spotlight. He accepts the challenge, but there is still another award watch list on which his name does not appear.
"Not being named to the Butkus watch list makes me play harder to go after it," said Mackey of the snub for the list of an award given to the nation's best linebacker. "It has lit a flame."
Mackey models his game after the NFL's elite playmakers including linebacker Ray Lewis as well as safeties Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed. "They always get after the ball. They're all guys with a high motor."
The emulation of Ray Lewis for Mackey is more about substance than style. Unlike the brash, vocal future Hall of Famer with the Ravens, Trent is unusual, a little different from the highly-successful, high profile athletes. He lets his play on the field do his talking for him while normally more comfortable in the background.
"I'm quiet. Speeches? That's not me," Mackey explained. "Like a silent assassin, I lead by example. Before the game, I prefer silence; 30 minutes before a game I get my mind right, knowing what I'm going out to do. "
The sociology major with 24 career starts wants to be considered a player who gave his best at Tulane from snap to whistle.
"I'm comfortable in my skin, a player that left everything on the field. It's not about me, it's about Tulane football. I love this staff. I wish that I had more eligibility," Mackey stated,
His football path took a temporary detour outside of the state of Louisiana following a banner prep career, first at South Plaquemine where he started as a 7th grader and later helped to win the 2001 A state title. Mackey earned All-District honors as an 8th grader.
Hurricane Katrina chased Trent and his family to Southwest Louisiana and Carencro High where he was a four-year starter. He was ranked as the 36th best inside 'backer in the 2008 recruiting class and also excelled on offense, rushing for 636 yards with 10 touchdowns. Defense was his calling card though as Mackey totaled 264 stops his final two seasons at Carencro with 25 tackles for loss and 12 sacks.
Still, Mackey was only considered a two-star recruit, despite being named the state's 5A defensive MVP.
After weighing offers from ULL, Tulane and Duke, Mackey decided on the Blue Devils after first pledging to the Green Wave. "I liked Duke and the ACC. I liked getting away from home."
Playing time as a true freshman in Durham was limited to primarily special teams where he recorded 10 tackles. Mackey then returned home in 2009 and sat out the mandatory one-year transfer requirement.
At Tulane, Mackey was an instant success, tabbed 2010 Louisiana newcomer of the year. He averaged over 12 stops per game in 2011, slotting him 4fourth nationwide in that category.
Returning to his Louisiana roots was a refreshing change for him.
"I like being home," he said. "I get to see my family. I get home-cooked meals. I can talk to my mom, dad and sisters."
Mackey understands that the 2012 season, his last on the college level, will offer limited opportunities to make a lasting impact. He wants to capitalize on each outing. The Green Wave have won just 11 games combined the last four seasons
"I want to win games. I want to get to a bowl game. That's my focus. I would like to win the Lombardi, Butkus and Nagurski awards and play at the highest level (NFL). I want to turn the program around."
The Green Wave are off to a great start in the recruiting department with more early commitments for a signing class than ever at this time of year in school history.
The new staff, the renewed attitude of current players and the plans for an on-campus stadium offer new hope for the football program. Trent feels the stadium will be major parts of the growth of the program moving forward.
"I wish that I could play in it.," Mackey said of the planned football facility Uptown. "(The team) won't have to travel. It will make you feel very comfortable. You will be able to walk off the field and you're in your locker. That's big! The Dome is just so big. We can't fill it up. The top level is always empty."
Mackey and his fellow upperclassmen will not be able to enjoy playing on-campus, but they are savoring the direction of Green Wave football.
"Recruiting is good. This program is on the rise."
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