Literally and figurative, Tulane’s offense went down with a thud in the spring football game a year ago.
Year No. 3 under coach Willie Fritz should be different on both counts.
Thanks to better depth, Fritz will allow tackling to the ground in Friday night’s conclusion to spring ball after prohibiting it a year ago. With stronger personnel, the offense figures to score more than the one touchdown it managed in a 65-play “scrimmage” last April.
Here are five things to look for when Tulane caps off spring ball with a real scrimmage (only the quarterbacks will be off-limits to hits) that starts 7:30 p.m. Friday at Yulman Stadium. The Green Wave is getting in front of the downpours expected for the originally scheduled time Saturday morning.
1. A different Jonathan Banks
Banks has been sharp from start to finish this spring — his head no longer swimming as it was when he tried to digest his fourth system in four years in 2017 as a junior-college transfer. His learning curve culminated in a rough spring game with a completion rate below 50 percent (5 of 11 for 65 yards) and two fumbles.
After throwing for 565 yards in Tulane’s final two games last fall, Banks has raised his game even more in 13 spring practices, finding star receiver Terren Encalade deep or checking down to an open target when his first option was not available.
“He’s always had great fundamentals and technique in drills,” Fritz said. “Now he’s doing it in practice. I really see his feet and his lower body and his upper body working in correlation when he’s throwing the ball. He’s just got a lot better handle of the offense. He’s doing a very nice job.”
Banks said he was a new player.
“I’m far more confident in where I’m going with my reads and just being able to lead,” he said. “When I’m able to play comfortable, there’s no need to think. I just go out there and execute.”
2. Better pass protection
Tulane’s offensive line is nowhere near a finished product yet, but it is far ahead of where it was 12 months ago, when the quarterbacks were under siege. Banks barely had time to scan the field, and his only big pass came on a broken play after he scrambled out of the pocket. This against a Wave defense that finished the fall with a paltry 14 sacks.
The scrimmage last Saturday at the Saints indoor facility was a different story. With four of five starters back from 2017, the Wave appears more cohesive up front.
“Our offensive line has been doing a phenomenal job being able to give me time to step into the pocket,” Banks said. “They’ve come a long way.”
3. New-look secondary
Although Banks has been impressive, the defensive backs have made their share of big plays, too, despite losing first-team All-American Athletic Conference cornerback Parry Nickerson. Their battle with returning receivers Encalade, Darnell Mooney (who might miss the spring game with an injury), Jabril Clewis and Charles Jones will be one of the day’s highlights.
Tulane is set at the back end, with Rod Teamer moving to free safety from the strong safety spot he played a year ago and P.J. Hall taking over at strong safety. Donnie Lewis has locked down one cornerback spot, with sophomore Jaylon Monroe and junior Thakarius Keyes leading a tight competition at the other one. Sophomore Tirise Barge is the top nickelback.
"Rod Teamer's had a great spring,” Fritz said. “P.J. Hall has had an outstanding spring. Some of the other guys have a real good practice and then the next day maybe they aren't quite as good.”
4. Running back brigade
After producing the fourth- and second-highest rushing averages per game in school history during Fritz’s first two seasons, Tulane does not appear ready for a drop-off. Dontrell Hilliard is gone, but Darius Bradwell, an imposing physical presence (6-foot-1, 235 pounds), Corey Dauphine and Stephon Huderson have excelled in spring drills. Fritz also praised pint-sized speed merchant Devin Glenn this week.
The skill level at the position is pushing each of them to get better or get passed on the depth chart.
5. Crisper execution
To put it mildly, Tulane’s first two spring games under Fritz were sloppy all around. The players had to learn his system in 2016 and still were not totally comfortable in 2017, leading to plenty of mistakes and little action.
That is no longer the case.
“We know what we’re doing,” Fritz said. “Some of the guys have been in the system two or three years. We’re getting better with the knowledge of the offense, the defense and the special teams. We’re able to say two or three words instead of two or three sentences, and they know what you’re talking about.”