Cross cornerback off the list of concerns for Tulane’s football coaches.
They still are not sure who will start against Wake Forest in the Green Wave's Aug. 30 opener at Yulman Stadium, but the development of junior Thakarius Keyes is a primary factor in their fervor.
Keyes has practiced with the first-team defense all week, joining sophomore Jaylon Monroe in a heated battle that includes freshmen Willie Langham and Chris Joyce as the Wave tries to replace first-team All-American Athletic Conference selection Parry Nickerson.
“We’ve got a lot of good corners,” coach Willie Fritz said. “It’s a very good competition.”
The next step is proving it in games. Nickerson, a tremendous playmaker who was a sixth-round draft pick of the New York Jets, had 55 tackles, six interceptions and eight breakups last season. The four of them accounted for three tackles, zero interceptions and one breakup — Langham redshirted and Joyce was still in high school — but they keep impressing in practice.
Keyes showed what he could do Friday, reading the offensive alignment and running step for step with wide receiver Jacob Robertson before cutting in front of him to deflect a deep ball in the end zone from quarterback Jonathan Banks and catching it on his own tip drill for an interception.
“He’s just gotten so much better,” Fritz said. “He’s a different looking guy now. He came in as a 170-pound skinny guy and now he’s 193, 194. He’s tall (6-foot-1), he’s long, has control of his body and has gotten a lot stronger in the weight room. We think he can be a very good player for us.”
Couple Keyes’ improvement with Monroe’s stellar camp, and Tulane’s only issue at the position is a lack of experience. Keyes played sparingly in his first two years, making eight tackles as a freshman and only two as a sophomore while struggling with consistency in practice.
More mature now, he wants to use his size to his advantage. He is four inches taller than Monroe.
“I feel like it helps me a lot because when receivers come up, they do not want to see a tall, long corner,” he said. “They already are panicking. It throws them off. It’s hard for a receiver to get off my press coverage.”
Keyes’ progression figured to take time. He had zero scholarship offers from FBS schools by February 2016 and intended to play for East Mississippi College, less than 100 miles from his hometown of Laurel, Mississippi, before deciding not to sign anywhere.
When Tulane offered him in late March, he jumped at the opportunity. His progression from there turned into a slow walk.
“I thought it was just going to be easy, but everybody is working hard,” he said. “Then I tore my meniscus in practice my freshman year. It was frustrating, but I just had to shake back. I couldn’t give up.”
He is starting to blow up in preseason camp. Because of the way he and Monroe are playing, two-year starting cornerback Donnie Lewis (36 tackles, three interceptions in 2017) took some reps at safety in Friday’s practice as the coaches looked for different combinations.
“We have so many guys that are making so many plays, it’s just bringing out the best in all of us,” Lewis said. “Guys are flying around and having fun. Depth is pushing us to compete even more.”
Keyes is a case study.
“He’s showing that he’s ready to roll this year,” defensive coordinator Jack Curtis said. “We’ve got some other issues we have to address with some depth at certain positions, but we’re going to be pretty solid at corner.”