The most important person on Tulane’s new football staff might be offensive line coach Alex Atkins.
Taking over a unit that was bruised and abused for much of Curtis Johnson’s tenure, Atkins began his rehabilitation project in the first week of spring practice under new coach Willie Fritz. The Green Wave completed its third workout Friday and will take next week off for spring break before returning March 28.
It won’t be an easy assignment. Three starters are gone from last season, including redshirt juniors Nathan Shienle and guard Colton Hanson, who decided to give up football rather than returning for their final year of eligibility.
Only nine players are available for the spring including 389-pound guard Jason Stewart, who is nowhere close to a working weight.
Atkins, though, said he’s not worried about the past. After coaching the blockers who helped Georgia Southern lead the nation in rushing the past two years, he is building for the future.
“We are just working on consistency every day,” he said. “That’s the main thing. We are grading each practice on can you do the same thing every single time the way it needs to be done. Every day is a measuring stick. That’s the reality, and we’ve got to go from there.”
Tulane’s numbers the past four years were bad, reflecting directly on the offensive line play.
In 2012, the Wave gained 39.6 yards per game on the ground, the second-lowest total for an FBS team this century. It never climbed higher than 91st nationally in rushing. Despite returning all but one starter up front and every significant running back this past season, Tulane ranked 10th to last nationally in rushing with 115.8 yards per game.
The Wave also allowed at least 25 sacks each year, leading to a revolving door at quarterback because of injury. The nadir came at Temple in October when the Owls rushed only three on one play, and all of them hit quarterback Tanner Lee at the same time.
Lee later left with a concussion that sidelined him for the next two games.
“Inconsistency was probably our biggest problem,” said senior Todd Jacquet, who started at right tackle a year ago. “Sometimes we’d look great and then the next play we’d look completely opposite. Coach Atkins is very detailed, so a lot of that should get fixed.”
The question is how many of the issues were due to lack of talent and how many were a result of a lack of confidence and cohesion under former offensive line coach John McDonell.
Atkins is working with Jacquet, sophomore John Leglue, junior Kenneth Santa Marina and sophomore Devon Johnson at tackle, senior Chris Taylor, redshirt freshman Leeward Brown and Stewart at guard and sophomore Junior Diaz, and redshirt freshman Keyshawn Mcleod at center.
Redshirt freshman Keeyon Smart, the younger brother of Tulane defensive tackle Tanzel Smart, is ineligible to practice for the spring but remains in school.
“We have to do a great job of pad level,” coach Willie Fritz said after Tulane’s first practice. “Coach Atkins did about half an hour in the chutes over-exaggerating that. It was about sinking your hips, not bending at the waste, and using your power angles. He does a super job, and those guys will play great. It’s a work in progress, though.”
At least Atkins will get to work with Taylor, a senior who started since the end of his freshman year.
“Chris is a blue-collar guy,” Atkins said. “He comes to work every day. Playing I don’t know yet, but I know his attitude and his mentality is what we need with this group.”
Diaz started four games a year ago; Leglue started once.
Santa Marina is coming off a yearlong suspension for academic issues. Johnson, listed at 6-foot-4, 324 pounds, has battled a weight problem of his own in the past.
Tulane signed two freshmen in February—Tyler Johnson of Stone Mountain, Georgia, and Phabion Woodard of Indianola, Mississippi. Atkins started a true freshman at left tackle last season at Georgia Southern, but that’s usually a course of last resort.
Atkins, who graduated from Tennessee-Martin in 2007, worked his way up the coaching ladder at Marshall, Itawamba (Mississippi) Community College and Chattanooga and Georgia Southern before joining Fritz in 2014. He is about 25 years younger than McDonell, and the gap in their philosophies appears just as large.
“I don’t want to say they are opposite, but they are different coaches with different styles,” Jacquet said. “(Atkins’) big thing is a lot more technical. Coach (McDonell’s) was a lot more about energy on the field.”
Tulane’s last All-Conference selection on the offensive line was Troy Kropog in 2008. Atkins inherited a group starved for success after frustrating careers.
“We want to be good,” Taylor said. “We want to get better. We want to make sure we get it right.”