All eyes will be on Tulane’s skill positions under new offensive coordinator Will Hall when spring practice starts Tuesday morning, but the line of scrimmage may be the real place to watch.
The Green Wave has more answers on the defensive front than anywhere else and more questions on its blocking unit than at any other spot, making both areas intriguing for different reasons.
A talented, deep defensive line returns virtually intact, and the experience all the freshmen and sophomores gained in 2018 could make this group dominant as Tulane tries to build on its first bowl win in 16 years and compete for the American Athletic Conference championship.
Juniors Patrick Johnson (49 tackles, 10 ½ sacks) and Cameron Sample (40 tackles, four sacks), whose numbers would have been larger if he had not missed two games due to injury and been hobbling for a few others, still have room to get better.
Massive sophomore nose guard Jeffery Johnson (30 tackles, 12 starts) should make the biggest leap after learning on the job as a true freshman. The former Alabama and Florida State recruit already has squatted 630 pounds during offseason training.
Redshirt junior tackle De’Andre Williams (38 stops, 12 starts) improved last year more than anyone on the team.
Pushing those guys will be true sophomores Davon Wright (18 tackles, 2 ½ sacks), Carlos Hatcher (15 tackles, four sacks), Juan Monjarres of St. Augustine (six tackles, 2 ½ sacks) and Alfred Thomas (seven tackles), plus redshirt freshman Jamiran James, a touted prospect from De La Salle who was affected by a hand injury.
That is nine names with significant game or at least the potential to excel, a luxury Tulane has not enjoyed in ages up front.
Blocking them will be a challenge for a new-look offensive line.
With three starters gone and the arrival of Brown transfer center Christian Montano, Tulane might have new first-teamers at every line position, including tight end.
Offensive line coach Cody Kennedy is new, too, replacing Alex Atkins, who left to become the offensive coordinator at Charlotte. Kennedy worked under Hall when Hall coached West Alabama and West Georgia.
“They finish each other’s sentences,” Tulane coach Willie Fritz said. “We interviewed a few guys, and if I would have found somebody I thought was better than Cody, I would have hired him. He also was the guy Will was most comfortable with.”
Montano is slated to play center, the position in which he started as a freshman, sophomore and the opening game of his senior year at Brown before sustaining a season-ending foot injury. His presence will allow Jesuit product Corey Dublin, a junior, to move back to guard, where he started as a freshman.
The frontrunner for the other guard spot is redshirt sophomore Cameron Jackel of Shaw, a backup last season.
The two tackle spots figure to involve a three-way competition among redshirt sophomore Joey Claybrook, who started four games late last year, and redshirt senior Keyshawn McLeod and junior Tyler Johnson, who both lost starting jobs during the season.
The Wave also will be inexperienced at tight end. Redshirt sophomore Will Wallace, who started six games a year ago, and sophomore Tyrick James combined to catch seven passes.
Quarterback Justin McMillan, who won five of his six starts after replacing Jonathan Banks, and Oklahoma State graduate transfer wide receiver Jalen McCleskey, who caught 73 passes in 2017, will not reach their full potential without a cohesive line. The same holds true for whatever tweaks Hall has in store for the offense.
If the linemen come even close to holding their own against the defensive front by the April 13 spring game, the Wave will be in good shape.
Spring at a glance
NEW: Early-enrolling safety Kanyon Walker and linebacker Nick Anderson, who played one year at Jones County Community College in Mississippi, join McCleskey and Montano.
OLD: McLeod is the only fifth-year senior on the roster and the lone player from the Curtis Johnson era left on the roster.
DEEP: The Wave is loaded at running back with all five players who carried the ball a year ago returning—1,000-yard rusher Darius Bradwell, home-run hitter Corey Dauphine, Stephon Huderson, Amare Jones and Cameron Carroll.
THIN: Other than McCleskey and Darnell Mooney (48 catches, 993 yards in 2018), the career reception total for the returning wideouts is 24, led by junior Jacob Robertson’s 12.