Lining up at guard for the first time in his life, it has been easy for Tulane’s Kenneth Santa Marina to motivate himself during spring football practice.
He knows good workouts will translate into playing time, unlike last fall, when former coach Curtis Johnson shut him down early for academic reasons.
If the 2016 opener were next week, Santa Marina would be Tulane’s starting right guard.
“This is the best time of my entire life,” he said. “It’s been two years since I played in a game, and I can’t wait. I pretty much want to get out there for a game tomorrow, but I have to have faith. Throughout the whole way, I kept my head on straight and continued to move forward.”
Santa Marina, a 6-foot-6, 324-pound redshirt junior from McDonogh 35, has been stuck in neutral longer than anyone expected when he signed in 2013 as the highest rated player in his class according to Rivals.com.
While fellow three-star recruits Tanzel Smart, Chris Taylor and Sherman Badie made huge impacts in either their first or second seasons, Santa Marina faded into the background. He was redshirted as a freshman, played in six games primarily as a blocking tight end a year later and lost a battle with Todd Jacquet for the starting right tackle spot in August.
The news got even worse from there. Santa Marina sprained his left ankle near the end of fall camp, sidelining him in a walking boot. Then, a week into September, he was one of several players Johnson chose to sit out for the season because he said they were not making satisfactory progress toward a degree even though they were eligible by school standards.
The rest of the way, Santa Marina worked on the scout-team offense from Sunday through Thursday but could not even dress out on Saturdays.
“It was terrible,” he said. “It was really terrible being out there trying to get better and having in my mind I’m practicing but I can’t do anything in the game.”
His desire to play eliminated any second thoughts about moving to guard from tackle, a change new offensive line coach Alex Atkins made early in spring drills. He practiced behind Jacquet and John Leglue at tackle during the first week but has taken every rep at guard with the first unit since then, lining up between Leglue and center Junior Diaz.
“I’ve never played guard before, but it’s a good transition,” he said. “It’s kind of similar, but now I have more help on the inside. At tackle you’re usually on an island by yourself. It’s not bad. I’m doing well at it and continuing to get better.”
Whether the move becomes permanent remains to be seen.
“His body type’s probably more of a tackle, but we’re going to keep there for the rest of the spring,” coach Willie Fritz said. “He hasn’t been bad. We’ll evaluate it more over the summer.”
The adjustment was not automatic. Santa Marina admitted he needed to keep working at it after a lifetime of playing tackle.
“The hardest part is really the pass protection, really shortening my slide,” he said. “At tackle I kick back way further than I do at guard, so I have to shorten it a little bit and try to get the tackle mentality out of my head.”
Everything else is going well. With the academic scare behind him, Santa Marina insists he will get a degree in digital design at Tulane. He also likes the design Atkins has for the blockers.
Former offensive line coach John McDonell, a veteran who was on his eighth school since 2000, never pushed the right buttons with his players. The line play was abysmal throughout his tenure, with the Wave struggling to block for the run, protect the quarterback or even pick up the right man.
Atkins, who graduated from Tennessee-Martin in 2007, has re-invigorated them with what Santa Marina labels a more college-based approach than the NFL style Johnson’s staff espoused.
“I love him,” Santa Marina said. “He’s a great coach. I wish he were here a little earlier.”
Rain and lighting prevented Tulane from practicing Wednesday. The Wave has three practices remaining, including Saturday’s spring game, and likely will go three straight days, although more thunderstorms are expected Thursday. … Redshirt freshman Brian Webb has been moved to offensive line from defensive tackle.