Sophomore defensive end Juan Monjarres raced around the corner to blow up a play instantly during a recent Tulane spring football practice, exhibiting tremendous burst and timing.
With a few more moves like that, Monjarres, whose strip sack of Memphis quarterback Brady White led to a pivotal safety in a 40-24 upset at Yulman Stadium last September, might crack the Green Wave’s two-deep depth chart.
Look no farther than the loaded defensive front for a reason why the Wave considers its Cure Bowl victory against UL a starting point rather than the finish line.
Monjarres, a St. Augustine product and proven playmaker, has received third-team repetitions in the spring because of the talented depth around him.
“I think we’re the best in our conference easily,” said rising junior Patrick Johnson, a second-team All-American Athletic Conference selection after making 49 tackles with 10½ sacks last year. “Our coaches are big on the whole D-line just dominating the game. We are prepared every day going in and it pays off.”
The line has no seniors but plenty of savants, starting with Johnson, who plays the joker position (outside linebacker/rush end).
“He’s got great understanding of what he’s doing,” coach Willie Fritz said. “He’s just got a knack for rushing the passer and is very coachable. You watch him do drills, and then he goes out and does it in the games. Sometimes guys have a tough time carrying it from practice through the game.”
Right end Cameron Sample, like Johnson, played extensively as a freshman before becoming a full-time starter last year. Considered a postseason honors candidate before a knee injury sidelined him for two weeks and slowed him a little longer, Sample still finished with 40 tackles and four sacks.
Redshirt junior DeAndre Williams was a revelation at tackle a year ago, morphing into a defensive leader with 38 tackles after making six in 2017.
Jeffery Johnson (30 tackles) held his own at nose guard as a true freshman, flashing the ability that had Florida State and Alabama recruiting him during his junior year in high school before a misdiagnosed health condition caused him to gain too much weight.
“I feel like we (the linemen) are impressively good because last year we were just perfecting our craft,” he said. “This spring you can see a big difference in everybody. When we go 1-on-1, we mostly win them all.”
Down to 325 pounds after weighing close to 340 last year, he says he feels faster and more athletic now that he has a flatter stomach. He nearly took out nickelback Tirise Barge in a conditioning drill during one spring practice, bumping into him as he ran full-out to reach a cone.
“There is a big difference from last year,” he said. “Everything is much smoother. When I got here last spring, it took me awhile to adjust to playing the college game.”
The potential does not stop with the four returning starters and their 147 tackles and 17 sacks. In addition to Jeffery Johnson, several newbies made impressions last year.
Freshman Davon Wright finished with 18 tackles and 2½ sacks at one end spot.
Another freshman, tackle Alfred Thomas, was not ready to contribute weekly but had seven tackles in seven games, gaining valuable experience.
Jamiran James, a freshman from De La Salle, likely would have played if not for a serious preseason wrist injury that hampered him the entire year. Coach Willie Fritz singled him out as a potential playmaker who would get extensive action at nose guard in the spring game next Saturday.
“He’s a real change-of-pace guy,” defensive line coach Kevin Peoples said. “He is considerably lighter than Jeffery and has more quickness. We’ve got one guy that really can be firm and solid against the run and another guy that has the ability to make plays in the backfield and give us a spark.”
Carlos Hatcher, yet another freshman contributor, started three times on the outside with 15 tackles and two sacks.
Monjarres, who had 2½ sacks in limited opportunities, makes it nine players competing for major downs.
“Carlos and Juan are both working hard and have improved drastically,” Peoples said. “They both have some real pass push ability and are trying to get more experience playing the run.”
Coaches are notoriously cautious about praising their players too much, but the Wave’s ability up front is impossible to deny.
“Obviously we want to make sure we’re not being complacent,” Peoples said. “We have to keep pushing hard every day, but we can be really good.”