When defensive end Ade Aruna forced a fumble on the first possession of Tulane’s first game last fall, he appeared ready to live up to multiple teammates’ predictions of an All-American Athletic Conference-caliber season.
It didn’t happen. After dominating preseason practices, he proved far too raw to match those high expectations, finishing with 32 tackles, three sacks and not another forced fumble as the Green Wave stumbled through a second consecutive 3-9 year.
“If I’m trying to grade myself (on 2015), I’d probably give myself a C,” Aruna said after a recent spring practice. “It depends on what the other team was trying to do. I was more of a pass rusher, and some teams ran the ball more than they passed. It was difficult for me. You just have to stick to the plan and play for the defense as a team.”
Tulane does not have any other 6-foot-5, 241-pound athletes who can run like Aruna or possess his agility, so it is up to a new staff and defensive line coach Kevin Peoples in particular to unlock his potential.
That’s the hard part. Aruna, a native of Nigeria, played one season of high school football at La Lumiere in Indiana after coming to the United States two years earlier as a basketball prospect.
Expected to compete for playing time at Tulane as a true freshman on natural ability alone in 2013, he was sidetracked by NCAA Clearinghouse issues that forced him to sit out almost all of preseason drills. A year later, he could not beat out experienced ends Royce LaFrance or Tyler Gilbert, making seven tackles as a reserve.
Last season was the second time he had started in his football life. Despite his outstanding work ethic, his lack of experience was painfully evident when Tulane got gouged by Georgia Tech (439 rushing yards) and SMU (323 rushing yards) among others.
“He’s got to put together a year that matches his athletic ability,” new Tulane coach Willie Fritz said. “He’s a tremendous athlete. He’s got great want-to, and he’s just like a sponge. He’s absorbing everything that coach Peoples is teaching him. He is going to be a great player, and we need him to be that way next year.”
It’s part of a process Aruna anticipated. While others assumed he would play liked he looked immediately, he knew it would take some time.
“I just have to stick to the routine, work with the coaches on fundamentals and do everything they put on the table,” he said. “They’ve been doing a good job. It’s just like going to school. Each year, I’m getting better and better.”
He expects to benefit from the change in philosophy from former coach Curtis Johnson’s staff to Fritz’s approach. With the Wave heading into the final week of spring drills, the differences have been dramatic.
“We’re doing the opposite of what we did last year,” Aruna said. “We’re doing more fundamentals and everything is going fast. That’s what we’ve been working on since the start of the spring. It’s much better.”
Peoples is optimistic, too. Coaching a proven All-AAC performer in tackle Tanzel Smart — probably the hardest working player on the team — he sees the same potential and a similar attitude in Aruna.
“This is a very talented group, and Ade might be the most talented guy,” Peoples said. “He’s close. He’s hungry and easy to work with. He’s a special player. If he puts some things together, he’s going to have a really long, successful football career. I think he’s going to have a huge year for us.”
After struggling to complete deep passes all spring, the offense had a long connection on Monday when wide receiver Larry Dace leaped to snag a Devin Powell pass about 40 yards down the field. … QB Glen Cuiellette is taking the initial reps with the first unit, with true freshman Darius Bradwell close behind and Powell third. … RB Lazedrick Thompson sat out his second consecutive practice while undergoing concussion protocol. … With Tulane’s severe depth issues at several spots, Fritz anticipates using plenty of incoming freshmen. “I told everybody that we signed if you are looking to get redshirted, please go some place else,” he said. “We’re going to try to play everybody who’s capable of playing.”