If Tulane defensive line coach Kevin Peoples felt like he had won the lottery, it would be understandable.
He inherited senior tackle Tanzel Smart when he arrived in New Orleans with new coach Willie Fritz. The other assistants didn’t.
Smart, a 6-foot-1, 304-pound two-year starter from Baton Rouge’s Scotlandville High, nearly led the American Athletic Conference with 15 tackles for loss last season despite playing on the interior line. That’s an incredibly rare feat. The only AAC players ahead of him were Houston linebackers Elandor Roberts and Steven Taylor with 17, and no ends or tackles matched his total.
“Before I met (Smart), I just liked how good a player he was when I put on that film,” Peoples said. “But after I got to meet him, he’s the hardest worker on our team. He gets the most reps. He’s hungry. He’s got a chip on his shoulder. He’s exactly what we’re looking for in the way he plays and the way he approaches the game.”
Peoples believes he has two other high-quality potential starters at tackle in Sean Wilson and Eldrick Washington, but Smart, who had 62 stops overall, is a difference-maker. He really began to dominate in the second half of 2015, racking up nine tackles for loss in Tulane’s last five games. His performance earned him first-team All-AAC honors from the league’s coaches even though the Green Wave went 3-9.
The testimonials to his talent pour in from all directions at Tulane.
“He makes it easier for most people,” said Wilson, who started next to him five times last year and seven times in 2014. “He just blows the play straight up, and we just make the tackle off of him.”
Fritz, a no-nonsense coach who usually measures his praise, gushed about Smart.
“The number one thing is the guy wants to be a great player,” Fritz said. “He works extra every single day, not every other day, every single day. I’ll go in (the training room) and do a little running, and he’ll be in there on the elliptical (machine). I bet the guy’s a good basketball player. He’s got good movement. He’s got long arms. He’s got a great jump off the ball.”
Coming off a huge year under different coaches, Smart could have been resistant to the new staff. Instead, he has embraced the changes through 10 spring practices.
“I feel real comfortable,” he said. “The coaches are focusing on the little things, and everything is adding up right. All the blitzes are good. It’s been a good spring.”
Peoples is high on his whole group, which Fritz considers the team’s biggest strength along with running back. Wilson began spring drills buried on the depth chart but has taken every rep with the first unit in the third week. Washington, who practiced next to Smart for most of the first two weeks, held his own.
“I consider all three of them starters,” Peoples said. “Sean is steady. He has good length, and he is another conscientious kid who wants to do right and will do everything you tell him to do. Eldrick is phenomenally strong in the weight room.
“I’ve been very blessed with the transition. They’ve been a joy to coach.”
Even Edwards (listed at 6-1, 365), the second-team nose tackle, could be a factor if he loses about 20 to 30 pounds in the summer. Peoples praised his athletic ability and quick feet.
That’s where Smart is unparalleled at Tulane. The defense-minded Fritz already sees him as the catalyst for the game plan.
“We’ve got to take advantage of his quickness,” Fritz said. “Sometimes you get those guys inside and you have them keeping the offensive linemen off the linebackers. The linebackers need to keep those offensive linemen off him.”
Wide receiver woes
An already thin wide receiver group has been depleted by injuries, one of which could affect the Wave in the fall.
Fritz said sophomore Andrew Hicks, a Belle Chasse product who is one of five scholarship receivers on the spring roster, had surgery Thursday for a torn ACL. He made two catches for 5 yards as a true freshman but got hurt last week in what appeared at the time to be inconsequential contact.
“He went across the middle, he bumped knees with somebody, he got up and he walked off,” Fritz said. “It turned out to be an ACL.”
Another sophomore, Rickey Preston, is out with a concussion. He has not cleared the protocol yet, leaving Tulane with three scholarship wideouts, including converted tight end Trey Scott and former walk-on Larry Dace. Little-known walk-ons Reed Green and Chaz Augustini, who never have played in a game, received heavy reps in Friday’s practice.
Tulane signed four receivers in February.