The Tulane football team had a welcome visitor at Wednesday morning’s practice.
Los Angeles Rams rookie defensive tackle Tanzel Smart, taking advantage of his team’s bye week, returned to the campus where he wreaked havoc on opposing offensive linemen the past four years.
Smart, a sixth-round draft pick, has started three of the last four games for the surprising Rams, who improved to 5-2 on Sunday with a 33-0 shutout of Arizona in London. With 12 tackles, he has made an immediate impact on one of the league’s top defensive lines.
“It’s been a blessing,” he said. “Just getting to play football every day, learning from the older guys, it’s been so much fun. Man, I can’t even explain it.”
Smart dropped to the sixth round of the draft because his height (6-foot-1) is considered less than ideal for an NFL interior lineman. He started every game in his final three years at Tulane, earning first-team All-American Athletic Conference honors as a junior and senior.
His prodigious tackles total for his position (67 in 2016, 62 in 2015) has translated well to the NFL, as has his work ethic. Rams staffers complimented his diligence in training camp the same way Tulane coach Willie Fritz praised him after inheriting him in 2016.
“I went in and wasn’t really trying to impress anyone,” Smart said. “I was just doing what I do. That’s the only way I know how to get better. I just had to do everything from college and bring it up another notch. I had to work harder, study film hard and get in my playbook hard.”
The biggest difference has been the won-loss record. Tulane went 17-32 in his four years, although the Rams’ 5-2 start matches the Green Wave’s from his freshman season.
“I like the feeling of the wins and just coming back in the locker room and the bond you share with the team,” he said when asked about his best experience with the Rams. “It's just a beautiful sight in the locker room after a win."
The trip to London was his first time outside of the United States, and he said he loved every minute of it. He even kept up with Tulane, getting feeds on his cell phone during the Wave’s game against South Florida, which started at 1 a.m. London time.
He has not been away long enough to feel like an outsider.
“I was just laughing and joking with everybody,” he said after practice. “It really is good to see everybody. I shoot the group texts before or after every game.”
Redshirt junior defensive end Robert Kennedy, who had knee surgery at the end of spring drills, practiced this week and is expected to play against Memphis on Friday.
Kennedy started seven games last season, making 27 tackles. He worked with the second-team defense this week in practice.
“We'll see what he can do,” defensive coordinator Jack Curtis said. “It's been so long since he's played, so we’ll have to see what kind of shape he's in, but we think he's going to be able to get some snaps this game. How many will depend on what he can do from a conditioning standpoint. It's nice to get him back.”
Fritz said Kennedy was cleared two weeks ago but promptly tweaked a hamstring, sending him back to the sideline.
With former starter Eldrick Washington sustaining a season-ending ACL tear against Florida International, Tulane needs depth at end behind freshman starter Cameron Sample.
“It will be great if he (Kennedy) were able to go,” Fritz said. “Eldrick was playing really well for us and was a workhorse, so that will help us.”
For the second straight day, quarterback Jonathan Banks did not get any reps in the open part of practice, but Fritz said he would start Friday against Memphis. Banks, who dislocated a finger on his throwing hand on the second snap against South Florida, missed only four plays. … Sophomore P.J. Hall will replace Roderic Teamer (ankle injury) as a starter at strong safety.