For the first time in several years, being an offensive lineman at Tulane is fun.
The Green Wave’s 488-yard outburst against Tulsa on the ground last Saturday — the third-highest total in school history — was the culmination of steady improvement and a clear sign the days of do-nothing blocking are coming to an end. It has taken coach Willie Fritz and offensive line coach Alex Atkins a little more than a year to revive a group that had failed on just about every level since the start of 2012.
Instead of getting past a bunch of whiffs, this time it was Tulsa’s defenders that waved the white flag, unable to cope with a line that kept coming.
“We played as a unit, kept driving through our blocks and we just communicated,” junior center Junior Diaz said. “It’s always good to have a year under our belt with a new coaching staff. We feel more comfortable. We’ve jelled as a unit.”
When Tulane (3-2) faces Florida International (3-2) on Saturday night at Riccardo Silva Stadium, the Wave will try to maintain the record average of 293 rushing yards that has it poised to win four of its first six games for only the fifth time in 42 years. Fritz has produced rushing juggernauts everywhere he has coached, but his starting point at Tulane was lower than anywhere else.
Two starting linemen from 2015 — center Nathan Shienle and guard Colton Hanson —skipped their final year of eligibility after graduating. The returning blockers had been part of a dysfunctional mess in former coach Curtis Johnson’s tenure from 2012 to 2015, replete with missed assignments, penalties and poor effort.
Despite having future NFL running back Orleans Darwka, Tulane averaged 39.6 rushing yards in 2012, the second-lowest total for any college football team this century.
On one play against Temple in 2015, the Owls rushed three against five blockers, and all of them hit quarterback Tanner Lee in less than three seconds.
Tulsa’s linemen needed that long just to get off of the initial blocks.
“If we can just get the right bodies on their right bodies, we have a chance on every play, and then it comes down to technique,” Fritz said. “That was a big deal. We run a lot of that inside zone, and you have to create a little movement vertically and horizontally, and we did that."
Tulane averaged 228.1 yards rushing per game a year ago — the third-best total in school history — but that number was misleading. The Green Wave gained 437 yards on the ground against Southern of the FCS, 355 against Tulsa despite falling behind 38-7 in the third quarter and 280 in a 37-6 loss to Central Florida.
The yards were much tougher to come by when the Wave really needed them.
“You want to win the games running the football, not just put up stats,” Atkins said. “That means nothing. If we’re running the ball and winning the game, then we get a little more happy.”
Tulane ran through Tulsa with a mixture of linemen Fritz inherited and recruited. Diaz and right tackle John Leglue are redshirt juniors with plenty of experience. Fritz found right guard Dominique Briggs at Coffeyville (Kansas) Community College. Left guard Corey Dublin, a Jesuit product, is a true freshman.
Sophomore left tackle Tyler Johnson, who started the final three games as a true freshman a year ago, re-claimed his spot in the past two games after losing it to redshirt sophomore Keyshawn McLeod.
“That year of experience really helped (Johnson) out,” Fritz said. “He has great feet, and he’s starting to get size and strength.”
Diaz’s return from a broken ankle that sidelined him for the last nine games of 2016 has been huge. Undersized for a modern center (6-foot-2, 300 pounds), he still draws high praise.
“He’s smart,” Atkins said. “Junior’s not a very big guy, but he knows how to get by. He’s crafty. He can find a way to get you.”
Leglue (6-7, 310) replaced Diaz at center last year and can play anywhere on the line, but he is most comfortable at tackle.
“John is just Steady Eddie,” Atkins said. “He loves football and has the prototypical size you’re looking for in a Division I offensive lineman. He’s always prepared. He’s very cerebral. If he ever wanted to be a coach, he’d be a big-time coach.”
Dublin’s rapid rise has been a surprise, but Atkins cited his background as a high school wrestler and former Jesuit offensive line coach Chris Chetta, now at Rummel, for his readiness.
“You don’t want to start a true freshman,” Atkins said. “But when you get one with the poise and toughness of Corey, that helps.”
Dublin beat out redshirt sophomore Leeward Brown, who started all 12 games at right guard a year ago but has gotten a little too big (6-4, 335) for Atkins’ taste. Unlike 2016, when the gap between the starters and their backups was large, the Wave has close competition at three spots. Miami graduate transfer Hunter Knighton is pushing Briggs, and McLeod and Johnson are in a dogfight.
“The competition helps a ton,” Atkins said. “Iron sharpens iron, so they say.”
Still, it will take more than one masterpiece performance against Tulsa to erase all of the concerns of the past. Atkins wants to see the same resolve against FIU.
“If we continue the attitude and the mentality we have, we'll see some results,” he said. “But we have big, huge, giant steps to make before I put a sticker on us.”