Youth was served last season on the Tulane Offensive line, with two freshmen and two sophomores seeing significant playing time. Will the Green Wave now reap the fruit of their experience this season?
Tulane’s offensive line depth was razor thin last season, with less than a dozen scholarship linemen at the start of the season players were moved from defensive tackle to have enough bodies to practice. That one of those players, John Washington, is currently listed as first team going into the spring highlights the need to develop depth along the offensive line.
Tulane was one injury away from catastrophe along the offensive line last season, and that injury happened the third week of the season. Starting center Junior Diaz suffered a broken ankle vs Navy and the line went into scramble mode, with John Leglue making the rare move from left tackle to center and departed senior Kenneth Santa-Maria moving into the starting lineup. Santa-Maria was eventually replaced by true freshman Tyler Johnson who along with redshirt Freshman Leeward Brown gained valuable experience for the 2017 season.
The running game was potent for most of the season, churning out 228 yards per game rushing, including a season high 467 yards on the ground vs FCS foe Southern. But the pass protection was inconsistent at best, with penalties always a specter waiting to kill a drive in its tracks. Yet the seeds of 2017’s success may have been planted in last season’s turbulent soil.
Tulane has 10 scholarship linemen available for spring provided everyone is healthy and able, which is a far cry from spring 2016 which saw the Green Wave down to seven and sometimes even six linemen for practice. Coach Willie Fritz, recognizing the lack of depth and athleticism to run his offense signed five linemen in the 2017 signing class two of which, JUCO transfer Dominique Briggs (Coffeyville CC) and Graduate transfer Hunter Knighton (Miami, FL) are on campus for the spring.
Tackles: Going into the spring the starting tackles will be Sophomore Tyler Johnson (6’3”, 280lbs) at left tackle and redshirt-Junior John Leglue (6’7”, 310lbs) at right tackle. They will be backed up by redshirt-Junior Devon Johnson (6’5”, 305lbs) and redshirt-Sophomore Keyshawn McCleod (6’5”, 305lbs). Johnson earned the starting nod in the last three games of the 2016 season by overtaking an upperclassman and performed well. Meanwhile, Leglue, was Tulane’s best lineman last season after taking over at the center position following Junior Diaz’s injury. McCleod has been steadily improving and will at the very least provide depth and perhaps also a challenge to Tyler Johnson for a starting role.
Guards: There will be a ton of competition this spring to see who gets to go into fall camp as the starter at guard. The current starters are redshirt-Sophomore Leeward Brown (6’5”, 335lbs) at right guard and the aforementioned John Washington (6’2”, 295lbs) at left guard. Graduate transfer Hunter Knighton (6’5”, 300lbs) and Brian Webb (6’2”, 310lbs) are currently listed as second team.
Brown started all 12 games last season at one guard position as a redshirt freshman, but must improve his footwork and manage his weight in order to stay atop depth chart. While John Washington, who may be the strongest Green Wave player, moved over from defensive tackle and saw extensive playing time as a blocking tight end. He has the athleticism to take over the position. Their top competitor will be Knighton, who saw playing time last season for the Hurricanes and has the ability and temperament to come this spring and take a job.
Center: Returning to the lineup will be Junior Diaz (6’2”, 300lbs) a redshirt-Sophomore who missed most of last season with a broken ankle. Joining Diaz at center is the Junior JUCO transfer, Dominique Briggs (6’3”, 290lbs). If Diaz is healthy he is one of the Green Wave’s top five linemen and a starter. The former three-star recruit has great feet and good technique. If Briggs, who has only played center for one season in JUCO, can utilize his physical gifts and the mean streak to match offensive line Coach Alex Atkins may have to find a way to put him on the field.
The Green Wave offensive line had it’s share of ups and downs last fall, with a plethora of penalties, missed assignments and at times a lack of talent. But this spring the trend seems to be one of potential improvement.
With the return to health of Junior Diaz and the additions of Briggs and Knighton as well as the three true freshmen arriving in the summer, the Green Wave finally has some depth. Couple the talent infusion with a year of experience in Willie Fritz’s offensive system and the Green Wave attack will look to do more rolling down the field in the fall.