Tackling his team’s lack of depth, Tulane football coach Willie Fritz came to a logical conclusion earlier this week: Saturday’s spring game won’t have anyone going to the ground.
With about 48 scholarship offensive and defensive scholarship players available, live tackling is out. Playing to the thud is in as the Green Wave finishes the spring practice Saturday morning at Yulman Stadium.
“I went back and forth about trying to see if we can run some plays live, and I just don't think we can do it,” Fritz said. “We've got a couple more guys injured or hobbled. I'm not quite sure what it would accomplish. We work on tackling a great deal (in daily drills), and we want to get everybody into the offseason program (as healthy as possible).”
Fritz hopes the entertainment portion of the “scrimmage” will come from watching a team that is much more comfortable than in the first year of his tenure. Coming off a 4-8 debut, he liked most of what he saw in Tulane’s first 14 spring practices.
Fritz said the Wave will work on the kicking game, conduct a two-minute drill and run about 60 plays Saturday. It won’t be much different than the practices he conducted all spring, but with the benefit of a full refereeing crew.
“It will be a good workout for us and get these guys some experience,” he said. “Sometimes you want to go live to distinguish between this guy and that guy, but I’ve been doing this long enough that I can kind of figure out who’s where based on what we’ve been doing for 14 practices. If not, I shouldn’t be here.”
That means a change in the quarterback pecking order will be unlikely. Fritz named junior college transfer Jonathan Banks the front-runner in the third week of spring drills, and Banks will get an opportunity to show why.
“I’m going to come out here and take it like a practice,” Banks said. “That’s all it is, really. Every day I’m learning more and more and getting comfortable with the schemes. It’s coming along real well. I’m coming out here every day and perfecting my craft, being a better leader and just learning the plays.”
The closer competition might be for the backup spot. Junior Glen Cuiellette, the primary starter in 2016, and sophomore Johnathan Brantley have been behind Banks for most of the spring. This week, Brantley has gone in second in each practice segment, with Cuiellette third.
“We had a lot ups and downs last year, so that was a good learning curve for me,” Cuiellette said. “Every time something happens in the spring, whether it is a bad play like a pick, I just know how to handle it. I’ve been there, done that. I’m good at bouncing back and not dwelling on things too much.”
Other position battles to watch:
Pass protection and pass rush.
Fritz will watch this one closely. The offensive line should be better with Junior Diaz returning at center after missing the final 10 games of 2016 with a fractured ankle, allowing John Leglue, who filled in for Diaz, to move back to his natural right tackle spot.
Defensive end is a team strength, starting with senior Ade Aruna. Fritz noticed a disparity from Tulane’s simulated scrimmage in the third week of drills to one Thursday morning.
“We still have to get firm in our protection,” he said. “The defense today got some good push on pass plays, whereas the last scrimmage we did, the offense really did a good job of setting a good, clean pocket for the quarterbacks. I'd like to get in some clean pockets where you can really see the guy go through his progressions instead of running for his life.”
The running back competition.
Tulane used four running backs heavily a year ago and likely will again, with seniors Dontrell Hilliard and Sherman Badie, sophomore Darius Bradwell and freshman Stephon Huderson all having highlight moments in the spring. A fifth candidate, redshirt freshman Miles Strickland, is out with a leg injury.
Bradwell, a converted quarterback who was recruited by Louisville as a running back, has been a revelation.
“He's a big guy with great vision, and he's going to explode through arm tackles,” Fritz said. “I'm impressed with him. He can really do everything.”