While all eyes will be on junior college transfer quarterback Jonathan Banks when Tulane opens year No. 2 of the Willie Fritz era, perhaps those eyes should focus a few yards in front of him.
Bad blocking has haunted the Green Wave since the start of former coach Curtis Johnson’s tenure in 2012, leading to miserable national offensive rankings of 109, 115, 107, 119 and 118 in the past five seasons — even though those teams had an NFL quarterback (Ryan Griffin), at least two NFL running backs (Orleans Darwka and Robert Kelley) and an NFL wide receiver (Ryan Grant) during that span.
Last year's telling stat: Tulane rated dead last nationally in third-down conversion rate at 27.8 percent, even though Fritz's run-first offense is designed to create high-percentage, short-yardage situations. Without significant improvement on the offensive line, it won’t matter what skill position players are on the field.
After Tuesday morning’s practice at the Saints’ indoor facility, Fritz preached positivity.
“We’ll be much better there (on the offensive line),” he said. “We really are. Right now we’ve got eight guys that are capable of playing at a Division I level. We need a couple more.”
A position change could prove pivotal in the blockers’ development. Junior John Leglue, a favorite of the coaching staff, has settled in at left tackle with the return of center Junior Diaz, who missed the final nine games of 2016 with a broken ankle.
Last year, Leglue played right tackle until Diaz was hurt, then shifted to center the rest of the way because no one else was capable of replacing Diaz. He did the best he could, but his body type (6-foot-7, 310 pounds) and skill set are more suited to tackle.
This time, Fritz has his two best linemen at the most important positions.
“It really hurt us when we lost Diaz last year,” he said. “He’s a really good player, and center is so key as far as making calls. He’s always got a little bounce in his step. He’s a physical, gym-rat kind of guy, and it’s great to have him back.”
Fritz sees progress at the other three spots as well. Third-year sophomore Keyshawn McLeod followed a strong spring with a solid first week of preseason drills, emerging as the clear front-runner at right tackle.
Third-year sophomore Leeward Brown, a former three-star recruit who started all 12 games at right guard last season, has shifted to left guard, replacing departed senior Chris Taylor.
True freshman Corey Dublin, a Jesuit graduate, worked with the first team at right guard in Tuesday’s practice while the normal starter, junior college transfer Dominique Briggs, filled in at center for injured backup Hunter Knighton, who will be out for another two to three weeks with a strained knee.
Dublin’s rapid development has given the line some unexpected flexibility.
“He’s tough, he’s got good feet and he has enough mass (6-4, 285) to play right away,” Fritz said. “He has a great work ethic and good stamina. A lot of times big guys don’t have a whole lot of stamina. He’s definitely in our top eight, and he has a chance to start for us.”
Sophomore Tyler Johnson, who started left tackle for the final three games as a true freshman, is pushing McLeod.
If Tuesday’s practice is any indication, none of the five starters on the offensive line for the final three games of 2016 will be in the same spot for the Sept. 2 opener against Grambling.
Considering Tulane’s tepid results up front, that’s probably a good thing.
“We’re pretty close (to having a set starting five),” Fritz said. “We have about six or seven guys in the mix.”