Davis Tull finds himself in the role of a “tweener” again.
Not the bridge he had to build between his past as a defensive end at Chattanooga and the strongside linebacker role he played during his brief rookie season with the New Orleans Saints.
In Dennis Allen’s defense, Tull is back at defensive end, lining up with his hand on the ground and attacking at the snap.
Now Tull is somewhere between a rookie and an experienced young NFL player. Forced to injured reserve because of a shoulder surgery, Tull essentially redshirted his rookie season after the Saints plucked him out of the fifth round in the 2015 draft. He did, however, enough time around the team to know what it takes to play at the NFL level.
“I’m used to the system. I’m used to what we do here. I feel comfortable,” Tull said. “At the same time, I realize that I haven’t had as much work as some of the other second-year guys, so I need to pay that much more attention to detail when I’m out there.”
Tull is still soaking up lessons from the veterans.
His locker sits between veteran linebackers James Laurinaitis and Dannell Ellerbe, and Tull has tried to emulate the way those players prepare this offseason.
“They’re two guys I look up to,” Tull said. “The way they still work and take care of their bodies. This is what, their eighth or ninth year? It’s pretty incredible to see the work ethic. As a young guy, to see them working hard, you know you’ve got to work that much harder.”
Tull said he’s simply happy to be on the field.
When the Saints drafted him last season, he was still recovering from surgery to repair a torn labrum, and he wasn’t cleared to play until midway through training camp. Tull briefly flashed the athletic skill that made him a dominant pass rusher at Chattanooga, and for a second it looked like he would still play a role the 2015 season.
Then he underwent surgery on the other shoulder.
Tull, who never missed a game in college, was understandably frustrated by the setback.
But he also knew better than most how to come back. A broken leg forced Tull to miss his senior season at Bearden High in Knoxville, Tennessee.
“I kind of knew what it took to come back and get healthy,” Tull said. “I’m still working out, still getting stronger. It’s hard, but you’ve got to put the same amount of effort into rehabbing that you do in practice.”
Tull said his shoulders now feel strong, and although he wears a shoulder sully — a protective brace — under his pads as a preventive measure, he feels like he’s left the injuries behind. While he recovered, Tull also put on weight, moving from the 245 range into the 250s.
The offseason work is starting to pay off with strides on the field. Tull, who possesses an explosive first step, followed up a Tuesday “sack” at minicamp with two more Wednesday, and even though the Saints aren’t wearing pads, Tull is starting to catch the attention of the coaching staff.
“I said something to him, I thought he had two really good get-offs,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “He’s obviously quick, he’s healthy, he’s doing well. His weight is right around (2)50, so I’m sure he’s anxious for us to get the pads on and for him to receive some good work.”
Tull’s return to his natural role offers the Saints another promising prospect at a position that lost second-year pass rusher Hau’oli Kikaha last week. With Kikaha out, Tull will compete with Kasim Edebali and Obum Gwacham for playing time, and the fact that he’s back at a familiar spot has allowed him to make up ground quickly.
“This is a little more of what I did in college, so it’s a somewhat easier transition,” Tull said. “But at the same time, it’s totally different techniques than college that you’ve got to learn, but I’m comfortable with where I’m at right now.”
Now that he’s finally healthy, the Saints would be happy if he keeps improving at this rate.