'We've got a long way to go': Tulane's ground attack shows promise, passing game struggles in spring game _lowres

Advocate staff photo by ELIOT KAMENITZ-- Dontrell Hilliard sprints for long yardage as he is chased by Stephon Lofton during Tulane's spring game played at Yulman Stadium in New Orleans on Saturday, April 16, 2016.

After the Tulane football team completed the last of 15 spring practices Monday morning, coach Willie Fritz and offensive coordinator Doug Ruse were convinced the Green Wave will be able to run effectively in the fall.

The Wave has a long way to go in plenty of areas, but it can start building with running backs Dontrell Hilliard, Sherman Badie, Josh Rounds and Lazedrick Thompson. The foursome combined for 177 yards on 27 carries in Saturday’s spring game.

“They all played really well this spring,” Fritz said. “We have four backs that in this offense are capable of being 1,000-yard rushers, depending on how many times they get the ball. That’s impressive. I’m really excited about those guys.”

Fritz knows about 1,000-yard backs: He has had at least one in his past five years. Georgia Southern’s Matt Breida gained 1,608 yards last season and 1,485 in 2014. At Sam Houston State, Tim Flanders rushed for 1,430 yards in 2013, 1,642 in 2012 and 1,644 in 2011.

Hampered by blocking and scheme issues, Tulane’s quartet combined for 1,350 yards last season under former coach Curtis Johnson. But Ruse said he saw enough promise this spring in the offensive line to predict positive results.

“We don’t have depth, but we’ve got the personnel there that, when we get in shape, we can put five guys out there that can work as a unit,” Ruse said. “Now we’ve got to get in shape so we can get more consecutive reps in a row with these guys.”

Tulane’s first-team unit up front is left tackle Todd Jacquet, left guard Chris Taylor, center Junior Diaz, right guard Kenneth Santa Marina and right tackle John Leglue. Fritz praised Leglue’s development but singled out Diaz, who became a starter at the end of 2015.

“He had an excellent spring,” Fritz said. “He finishes plays, he plays hard and has a bounce in his step every single day. He’s a 300-pound guy that runs around like a little guy, which is good.”

Running and running

Still about four and a half months away from the Sept. 1 season opener at Wake Forest, the team’s focus will go from fundamentals to fitness.

The coaches said practices lagged at times during the spring because players were dragging their out-of-shape bodies around the field.

“We didn’t devote our offseason workouts to getting in shape,” Ruse said. “It was about getting bigger and stronger.”

The shift comes now.

“We really lifted heavy in January, February and March,” Fritz said. “Our conditioning wasn’t that great. With limited depth, that hurts you. (Tuesday) at our team meeting, I’m going to explain to our guys that we’re going to run like crazy this summer. That’s going to be a strength of our team, not a weakness.”

No longer nicked up

Junior cornerback Parry Nickerson, a two-year starter, participated in the last five spring practices after missing most of the rest with a sore knee.

“It felt great to get back practicing,” he said. “It built my confidence. I think we’re going to have a great defense. We just have to continue to build our chemistry and learn the defensive plays.”

Nickerson redshirted in 2013 with a chronic knee issue that threatened to end his career, but he bounced back with a terrific season in 2014, making 51 tackles and a team-high six interceptions. Last year, though, he had zero INTs and was beaten for a few long gains.

“Parry can be a really good corner, but at that position you have to be mentally tough every single play,” Fritz said. “You play 65 plays good and three bad, and it looks like you had a horrible game. We have to make sure we’re on point every snap.”

Rounds still around

Rounds, a fifth-year senior who redshirted in 2014 rather than as a freshman, is thankful to have the opportunity to play in Fritz’s system.

He had 93 yards on 14 carries against Central Florida in October but finished the season with just 207 yards on 35 attempts. Despite the depth of Tulane’s crowded backfield, he anticipates bigger and better numbers in his last go-round after getting nine carries for 44 yards in the spring game.

“I’m expecting the best and hoping for the best,” Rounds said. “The redshirt year really helped me out a lot. It gave me an opportunity to get a fresh start.”

As for what could separate him from the other backs, he pointed to quickness.

“I have a very quick first step, and I make decisions fast,” he said. “That’s what’s different.”

Rounds went to McMain High School, just a few blocks down Claiborne Avenue from Tulane.

Lagniappe

Backup center Keyshawn McLeod hurt his right ankle and knee in Monday’s workout and spent the rest of the practice on the trainer’s table. Fritz said the extent of the injury had not been determined and that McLeod would be checked out by a team doctor. … Using a tee, athletic director Troy Dannen attempted four field goals from 25 yards and two from 30 yards at the end of practice with a straight-on kicking style. He was 0-for-6 before finally getting one to clear the crossbar.