Defensive tackle Jeffery Johnson dropped more than 25 pounds from the time he arrived at Tulane in January to the beginning of spring practice Monday.
Considering the Green Wave's dire need at the position, his work ethic already has taken a load off the minds of the coaches.
They are grooming Johnson, a three-star early enrollee from Brookhaven, Mississippi, who once had offers from Alabama and Florida State, to play a substantial role right away.
"I don't even know if he's 18 yet, but he has great strength and very good movement," coach Willie Fritz said. "It's a huge advantage for him to be here now to see what college ball's all about. He'll play for us this season for sure."
With Sean Wilson finishing in 2017, Tulane is bereft of proven nose tackles. Returning backup Braynon Edwards made six stops a year ago while batting his own weight issues.
Enter Johnson, who says he weighed 345 pounds at the beginning of the spring semester, largely the product of inactivity last summer after a doctor told him to avoid all exercise because of a high enzyme count that threatened his football career. He was cleared to play again three months later in August when the test result proved to be a false positive, but by then he was out of shape.
That is no longer the case. Johnson gets weighed every Monday, and the scale keeps stopping sooner.
"It's been a big adjustment for me when I came here," he said. "They (the staff) have been putting pressure on me. They have high expectations for me. They expect me to work my butt off and perform."
Even with the extra pounds during offseason workouts, he exhibited agility and stamina uncommon for a freshman tackle. Having shed them, he can make an immediate impact.
"There are not many guys his size that can move like that," Fritz said. "He's got really quick feet. You see him out there, he looks the part. You wouldn't be able to pick him out as a freshman. He's going to be a great player at Tulane."
Johnson says he can bench press 350 pounds, squat 550 and power clean 275, a number he admits would be higher if he had better technique. Combine that strength with his natural ability, and the excitement around him is understandable.
Defensive coordinator Jack Curtis tempered the enthusiasm with some perspective.
"We're going to have to get the most of out of him in spring ball," he said. "Physically from a size standpoint and a strength standpoint, he's there. He just has a long way to go in knowing what to do."
Johnson is happy to be doing it close to home. Brookhaven, which is due south of Jackson, Mississippi, is about a two-hour drive to New Orleans, which will allow his family to see him play easily.
Louisville and Kentucky made late pushes for him after he committed to Tulane, but their distance was a deciding factor.
"I didn't see myself going 12 or 14 hours away, so I came here," he said. "It's been great. When I was being recruited, I got along with the coaches, and when I came on my visit, I connected with the players. It felt like home. I've been loving it ever since."
The love affair is mutual. When former Tulane coach Curtis Johnson signed overweight prospects Jason Stewart and Edwards, the Wave took on projects who either never panned out (Stewart) or made their weight situation a constant battle (Edwards).
Johnson already has proven to be different.
"If he would have come in the summer and been that weight and had to take off the pounds, it takes a while to get in shape and play at the level that you need to play," Curtis said. "He's way ahead of the curve as an early graduate. Whether he's ready or not, he's going to get thrown into the fire."
Jonathan Banks, who averaged 216 yards passing in the last six games of 2017, has picked up where he left off. He ended Friday's practice with a perfect touchdown pass to wide receiver Jabril Clewis, who beat double coverage on a deep post. Banks' continued improvement is a priority in the spring, and so is finding a backup quarterback. Sophomore Dane Ledford had the clear edge on true freshman Christian Daniels, another early enrollee, this week. Daniels, still learning the offense, was slow to make decisions. Ledford got the ball out quickly.
Senior Rod Teamer, who started at strong safety as a junior, is practicing at free safety in the spring as the Wave experiments with different combinations in the back end of its defense. The coaches have to find a replacement for cornerback Parry Nickerson — Thakarius Keyes, Jaylon Monroe and Willie Langham are the leading candidates — and get better coverage ability overall. Junior P.J. Hall was the first-team strong safety this week, and sophomore Tyrise Barge was the top nickelback. Sophomore Chase Kuerschen, who started eight games at safety a year ago, is working at linebacker.
Hunter Knighton and Dominique Briggs are getting the first crack at replacing center Junior Diaz, who transferred to Florida Atlantic as a graduate student. … Offensive lineman John Washington, who would have been a junior, and defensive back Eric Lewis, who would have been a redshirt sophomore, are no longer on the team. The Wave has 63 scholarship players and 17 walk-ons for the spring.