Senior offensive guard Rio Mares still shakes his head when he recalls the way Tulane struggled to run the ball last year. Just about every game was a recurring nightmare, except he could not wake up the next morning and realize it hadn’t happened.
With four new starters on the offensive line who had hardly played (their backups were even more inexperienced), the Green Wave averaged 39.6 yards rushing and did not run for a touchdown until the eighth game.
Tulane’s average per carry was 1.7 yards. Leading rusher Rob Kelley finished with 286 yards, the team’s lowest total in that category since 1963.
Never mind Nick Montana. Forget about the influx of talented, big defensive linemen. For the Wave to fulfill higher expectations this season, Mares knows the run blocking needs to improve exponentially.
“It has to be a complete 180,” he said. “I love running the football, and to see numbers like that is embarrassing. It gives you a little burn inside. That definitely was our emphasis in the offseason.
“We’re trying to work hard on our run game.”
That rushing total from 2012 was the second lowest for any Football Bowl Subdivision team this century. Blown assignments were a problem early in the season, but even after the linemen solved those issues, the one constant was a lack of push. Week after week, opponents stood their ground.
“We didn’t have the strength to move people off the ball as well as we would have liked,” Mares said. “We all looked at each other and said that has to be our main focus during the offseason or we’re going to have another season like we did.”
Two weeks into preseason camp, they feel good about their progress. All but one lineman returned, and senior center Zach Morgan, a rock-solid three-year starter, is back after missing all of 2012 with a shoulder injury.
Plus, the freshman class includes one potential starter — guard Chris Taylor of Zachary, and another contender for playing time — tackle Kenneth Santa Marina of McDonogh 35 in New Orleans.
“We obviously still have light years to go, but we have made drastic strides,” offensive line coach John McDonell said. “Our weight coaches did a phenomenal job, which is so huge with offensive linemen, because the weight room builds confidence. They see those gains on how much they’re lifting. We really stressed that over the spring and the summer, and now it’s paying off.”
Tulane has quality running backs. Senior Orleans Darkwa, who rushed for more than 900 yards in his freshman and sophomore seasons, is on the preseason watch list for the Doak Walker Award. Kelley caught 46 passes out of the backfield last season.
They just need some holes.
“I know the running backs want the ball, and there’s no doubt in my mind we’re going to be able to do that,” Morgan said. “If you’re stronger, you’re more confident on the field. We’re going to pound the rock.”
Despite having some shotgun snapping issues as he wipes the rust away from a lost season, Morgan is a sure starter up front. The rest of the line positions are wide open.
Junior Sean Donnelly, who started every game at left tackle a year ago, has moved to right tackle to accommodate athletic sophomore Todd Jacquet on the quarterback’s blind side. Both of them are trying to hold off sophomores Arturu Uzdavinis and Nate Skold, Santa Marina and senior Mike Henry, who started at center last season.
The first-team guards have fluctuated day by day, with incumbent starters Mares and Adam Skidmore competing with redshirt freshman Nathan Shienle and Taylor.
“None of us can get complacent — and with a season like we had last year, there’s no time for complacency,” Mares said. “Someone else is starting every day, and it’s great because it’s making us give 100 percent every day.”
McDonell considers Jacquet, Uzdavinis and Henry his best athletes, so one of them will start at left tackle. The emergence of Taylor is an intriguing option at guard even though true freshmen traditionally struggle on the offensive line.
“He’s blessed with what I call ‘quick-twitch,’ ” McDonell said. “He’s got great quick hands and quick feet. He’s one of the best strikers. He’s natural, coming off the ball with explosive talent. It’s fun to coach.”
Tulane’s pass blocking improved significantly as last season progressed, something McDonell feels was overlooked. After all, relatively immobile quarterback Ryan Griffin needed good protection to have the two biggest passing days in school history.
Run blocking was a different story, but McDonell believes his guys are far advanced from where they were 12 months ago.
“In the last half of the season, we really did improve, and people forget about that,” he said. “But it does build a kind of unity amongst ourselves. It’s us against the world.”
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