JULY 19, 2017
The AAC wrapped up its “American Pow6r” Media Days in Newport, RI today, and I had a chance to sit down with Tulane’s player representatives and Coach Fritz as they prepare for camp.
Earlier in the day, the AAC Media Poll was released with the Wave landing unceremoniously in last place for the stacked AAC West. There was no sign that the Green Wave players on hand were phased by that news, as they talked up the progress they expect to see in their second season under Coach Fritz.
This is a two parter – today, we’ll cover what we learned about the offense from Coach as well as running backs Dontrell Hilliard and Sherman Badie. Tomorrow, I’ll break down interviews with Ade Aruna and Parry Nickerson as well, since those were also very interesting.
With transfer Jonathan Banks named Tulane’s starter coming out of spring camp, I wanted to gauge how we can expect the offense to shift with the former four-star recruit at the helm.
Coach Fritz called out Banks’ ability to execute key read option concepts: “he does a better job of pitching the ball then a lot of quarterbacks when they first get into this system. He’s done it before, and he has enough speed to get on the perimeter.”
Dontrell Hilliard felt like Banks’ speed would make his job easier: “When you have a dual threat, the linebackers are going to have a tougher time making their reads and hitting their gaps… We’re going to be able to get the ball out to the perimeter and attack the edges. Jonathan does a good job of pitching it outside, if needed, but he also can hit inside when he needs to.”
That said, Fritz emphasized that the most important thing for his offense was execution, especially in the tough opening stretch of the season. Fritz cited “grasping the offense” as his most important goal for Banks in camp this August: “He doesn’t need to win games for us right away. In time, he’s going to put his athleticism on display, but what I need now is the execution from him, and it’s going to be vital to his team in these first three ballgames.”
With a depleted roster last year, the offense struggled just to keep enough healthy bodies in play to field their offensive line. Fritz added depth over the offseason, which included transfers Dominque Briggs and Hunter Knighton.
Still, Fritz is determined to get more production from his offensive lineman. “We’ve got to do a better job of creating seams both vertically and horizontally,” coach said. “You have to do that to let your backs get to that second and third level. We’re also going to work on getting our wide receivers to block downfield.”
Sherman Badie feels this emphasis is starting to work and the unit is “getting it together.” Badie said, “They have been working a lot harder and focusing on not being hurt as much. They’re more focused – we’re all in, and we see them working hard in the film room and putting in extra work.”
If the line can avoid injuries, Fritz wants to hit the gas and master the complexity of blocking for zone plays: “We had a tough time with the Offensive Line last year… With that zone play, every situation, every alignment, every slant is a different blocking strategy with the inside zone, and I think in year two we will see improvement.”
While it’s not as pronounced as the need at quarterback, Fritz offenses tend to thrive when they combine an arsenal of versatile backs. I wanted to get Hilliard’s read on who else could expect significant touches this season, and he immediately pointed to sophomore Darius Bradwell (who has converted from quarterback) and true freshman Stephon Huderson.
Hilliard felt that both “had a great spring” and that they elevated the competition in the backfield, pushing Hilliard and Badie as well.
He also saw both follow a smooth transition to life as a college running back: “Huderson needed to just focus on the small details like trying to run around the defense – sometimes you just need to put your shoulder down and go. Darius liked to run the ball anyway. He just needed to get the ball.”
Like Parry and Ade, Hilliard and Badie were very clear: they expect this senior class to leave a legacy that redefines Tulane Football.
I asked Hilliard if he had seen the clip of Rae Juan Marbley in the weight room, which was picked up by several national outlets yesterday.
Hilliard felt like the Green Wave is reaching a new norm with an emphasis on pushing each other to reach a new level.
“As seniors, we made a decision as a group that we are going to change the culture at Tulane. We are going to leave this as a winning program,” he said.
The only way you can do that is by buying in and gelling with each other… We’re coming together to ball and play for each other. Back then, I felt like we played selfishly or for yourself. Now it’s like we’re playing for each other, and it’s starting to show.”
This shift in mindset highlights another core principle of the senior class: finishing games that Tulane could not close out last season. Hilliard wants to instill a more disciplined approach to every practice and feels that if they do that, Tulane has enough talent “to do what we want to do with our offense against every team we will see.”
That’s it for the offense. More to come from Nickerson, Aruna, and Coach tomorrow.