Tulane defensive lineman Ade Aruna was helping bring down Memphis running back Darrell Henderson on Friday when he was part of one of the hardest hits of the night.
Unfortunately, the shot came from teammate Quinlan Carroll, who inadvertently smashed his helmet near Aruna’s ear hole as he tried to finish off Henderson during the third quarter of the Green Wave’s 56-26 loss.
That play represented Aruna’s senior season in microcosm. He missed the next series while recovering from the blow, and he has been missing in action for most of the first eight games.
He arrived at Tulane in 2013 as a raw talent with the measurables of an SEC defensive end (6-foot-5, 247 pounds and fast; he has grown to 6-6, 270) but only one year of high school football after coming to the United State from Nigeria. He improved steadily through his redshirt junior year, going from seven tackles in eight games as a redshirt freshman to 32 tackles and three sacks as a full-time starter in 2015 to 43 tackles, five sacks and 10 tackles for loss in 2016.
This year, though, he has registered only 12 tackles. Two of his three sacks — his only stops behind the line of scrimmage — were in the opener against Grambling.
Those are not the numbers anyone expected. At AAC Media Days, Aruna said he wanted to reach double digits in sacks. In preseason camp, coach Willie Fritz said Aruna needed to be as productive as Tanzel Smart (67 tackles, 18½ for loss) was in 2016 for the defense to excel.
“I just try to do my assignment,” Aruna said. “I’m not concerned about the rest of the things because we have a different assignment every week. I just do what the coaches want me to do.”
There are plenty of mitigating circumstances. Tulane changed its defensive alignment in the offseason, using a base three-man front that often has Aruna playing inside of a rush end/linebacker rather than as an end in a four-man front. With Smart dominating the middle in the past, Aruna was free to rush off the edge and chase down quarterbacks with impunity.
“It’s an adjustment,” he said. “Like I said, it’s assignment football. That’s what we do.”
Tulane also played Navy and Army early, a pair of triple-option teams that do not mesh with his pass-rushing skill set. He had zero tackles against Navy. Bothered by a sprained ankle, he did not get on the field against Army until the Black Knights’ final desperation series when they had to throw, snapping a streak of 21 consecutive starts.
Aruna still has time to turn around his season. Tulane (3-5, 1-3 AAC) needs to win three of its last four games to become bowl eligible for only the second time in the last 15 years, starting with Saturday’s homecoming against Cincinnati (2-6, 0-4) at 3 p.m.
“We have four games down the stretch,” defensive line coach Kevin Peoples said. “That’s what we’re focused on. Anything we didn’t do in the past, we can’t worry about it. It’s always an adjustment (to play a new position), but it’s football. He (Aruna) gets some opportunities to play some of the stuff that he’s played before.”
Aruna, an excellent student with a positive attitude, already has earned a Bachelor’s degree in homeland security studies and is working on a second degree in public health.
He has another month to match his classroom performance on the field.
“He’s got four games to get out there and get after it and show what he can do,” Fritz said. “We feel like his best football is ahead of him. He wants to finish on a high note.”
The struggling Tulane defense could use the help. The Wave has slipped to seventh in the AAC in yards and points allowed with a rough stretch against Florida International, South Florida and Memphis, allowing an average of exactly 500 yards in those three defeats.
It is also a last chance for Aruna to revive his flagging professional football future.
“I’m not worried about that,” he said. “To me it’s about the team. It’s not really about me. I just want us to get to a bowl game. We can play much better than what we’re doing right now.”