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Memphis Tigers quarterback Riley Ferguson (4) is pressured by Tulane Green Wave defensive tackle Tanzel Smart (77) and defensive end Robert Kennedy (90) at Yulman Stadium in New Orleans Friday, October 14, 2016.

Advocate photo by A.J. SISCO

After a freak injury in the weight room cost him more than half of his season, Tulane defensive end Robert Kennedy is thrilled to be throwing his weight around on the field again.

His five tackles on Saturday against Cincinnati — which matched the combined total for the rest of the Green Wave’s defensive linemen — came seven months after he underwent major knee surgery that could have ended his junior year before it started.

“I was power cleaning with a weight during the spring, and on the way up, my knee buckled,” he said. “Then it kind of just snapped down. It was a (torn) ACL and meniscus.”

Coming off a solid year as a first-time starter, Kennedy, who finished with 27 tackles while missing two games due to injury, refused to let the setback stunt his drive. Upbeat by nature, he said he worked hard to get back as soon as possible without feeling sorry for himself.

The payoff came Saturday. Although he received spot duty in his first game against Memphis on Oct. 27, making a tackle for a loss, he went most of the way against Cincinnati after freshman starter Cameron Sample left with an injury during the first half.

Tulane (3-6, 1-4 American Athletic Conference) lost, but not because of Kennedy.

“It's impressive that he could play as many snaps as he did,” defensive coordinator Jack Curtis said. “Rob is a real powerful guy. He's physically stronger than most people. He whips a lot of folks up front. We missed him an incredible amount this year, but we're glad to have him back.”

Kennedy would have returned even sooner if not for another freak occurrence. Cleared to play against Tulsa in the first week of October, he pulled a hamstring covering a punt in practice two days before the game.

“One of the coaches ran on the field and I didn’t see it until the last second,” he said. “I tried to sidestep him, but I guess my agility really isn’t that good because the hamstring went. If I wasn’t frustrated before, I was definitely frustrated then.”

Already having redshirted as a freshman, Kennedy did not have the option of sitting out the season without losing a year of eligibility. He waited until the hamstring had healed, stepped on the field against Memphis and played as if he had never left.

He has more weight to throw around than in the past. A linebacker at Belle Chasse, he still was listed at 240 pounds at the end of redshirt freshman year at Tulane.

After weighing about 260 in 2016, he is up to 280 or 285 now.

“That was a little bit of a concern for us, but he seems to be able to handle it,” Curtis said. “I don’t know if his speed has suffered or not. He’s just getting back, so it’s hard to tell until he plays more games, but he’s gotten even stronger than he was before. When he comes off the ball, he’s just a brute in there.”

Kennedy earned his starting spot last year because of his combination of size and speed. He finished seventh in the state in the 200-meter dash as a junior at Belle Chasse, retaining that quickness even as he became a weight room warrior at Tulane, squatting 600 pounds and bench pressing nearly 400.

Sample may or may not be back against East Carolina this Saturday, but Kennedy proved he was ready to handle the load. He said he felt tired only once or twice against Cincinnati, adding it was more a case of getting used to the physicality of football rather than real fatigue.

Stuck in a four-game skid, Tulane will need his energy and playmaking ability at East Carolina on Saturday. Curtis compared his strength to Tanzel Smart’s, something the Wave has lacked up front all year.

Smart, a current starter for the Los Angeles Rams, controlled the line of scrimmage on a weekly basis in 2016.

Kennedy gives the Wave a better shot to hold up the rest of the way.

“I've got to give it my all because I have a lot of time to make up,” he said. “I'm going to give it my all for my brothers, making sure I see them off. This class graduating this year, we all came in together. It's a personal deal. I have to send them off right.”