When he left the nation’s leading rushing team for the 10th-worst, new Tulane football coach Willie Fritz was not aware of the treasure trove he inherited at running back.
Consider him a convert after the Green Wave completed the fifth of 15 spring practices Tuesday. Dontrell Hilliard, Sherman Badie, Lazedrick Thompson and Josh Rounds all have made early impressions.
“I really think our top four backs here are very good players,” Fritz said. “All of them have got good size. All of them have got good speed. All of them have good hands. This is a different offense, but I’ve had some really good backs (in the past) and these guys can really flourish in this offense.”
The two names Fritz uses as a point of motivation are Matt Forte and Matt Breida.
Forte, you know. In 2007, he rushed for a Tulane-record 2,127 yards, a number that still ranks 11th in NCAA history. He excelled the past eight years with Chicago in the NFL, gaining more than 1,000 yards five times and catching 50 or more passes six times.
Breida, Fritz’s top back at Georgia Southern the last two seasons, averaged a nation’s best 7.9 yards on 203 carries in 2015 and an eye-popping 8.7 yards on 171 attempts in 2014. He did not look imposing at 5-foot-10, 185 pounds, but he was an all-around performer for the Eagles.
“In this offense, No. 1, you have to be a complete running back,” Fritz said. “(Breida) also was a great pass protector, a great receiver and a great blocker on the perimeter. We’ve got to expand our total game. We are looking for guys who can play like Matt Forte.”
Hilliard, who has lined up with the first unit during the spring, produced in a dysfunctional offense last fall. He rushed for 646 yards on 115 carries, averaging 5.6 yards per attempt.
The transition from Johnson to Fritz should help him. Georgia Southern averaged 363.0 yards rushing last season, while Tulane averaged 115.8.
“I feel like this offense is going to help us win,” Hilliard said. “It’s a real good fit for me. Everything you want is in this offense and is right here in front of you. I’m picking up the offense pretty good, but I’m still trying to see what I can do to become that perfect back, the balanced back.”
Badie endured a frustrating sophomore season, averaging only six carries. That was a year after he made an incredible debut with 215 yards on 15 attempts against Tulsa. His numbers dropped from 688 yards and 5.7 yards per carry in 2014 to 310 yards and 4.3 yards per carry. His highest rushing total was 73 yards against SMU.
The first week of spring drills under Fritz was not easy for Badie, either, as he drew the ire of coaches who wanted him to finish plays at full speed. He considered it constructive criticism, harkening back to his days at John Curtis.
“I feel good about that,” he said. “I always like to have a coach on me because it goes to show they want me to be great. I am going to push and do whatever they ask me to do. It’s a big transition, but I have to be mature and understand everything and be a team leader.”
Rounds and Thompson, a pair of fifth-year seniors, also are in the picture.
Rounds, who played at McMain High a few blocks from the Tulane campus, emerged as a factor in two of the Wave’s three wins after playing sparingly earlier in his career. He rushed for a personal best 93 yards on 14 carries against Central Florida and had a 25-yard touchdown run against Army.
Thompson, a physical downhill runner, was hampered by an ankle injury that forced him to miss four games and limited him in a few others. He finished with 162 yards on 45 carries after gaining 533 yards in 2014.
Fritz inherited major questions marks at quarterback, offensive line and receiver. The running backs, though, are providing answers.
“Those four guys are going to play a bunch for us,” Fritz said. “I’m not going to be able to give a final true evaluation until we play a couple of games, but from what I’ve seen them do on tape and what I’ve seen them do in practice, they can be outstanding.”