“Me and Chris Davenport and the other guys with size, we can move, too. It’s going to be good. We are going to get good ball pressure in the backfield and cause some havoc.” Tanzel Smart, a 6-2, 331-pound freshman tackle from Scotlandville
Two weeks into preseason camp, Tulane senior defensive end Julius Warmsley still couldn’t get over the size and speed surrounding him. After three years of largely hopeless toil for a defense that was too small, too weak and too slow, the Green Wave’s newcomers were a dream come true.
Warmsley could pick half a dozen guys as examples, but this time he singled out a freshman tackle.
“In general, just the whole recruiting class that came in is ridiculously strong,” he said. “I mean, (Helen Cox product) Eldrick Washington came in with some ridiculous numbers. He benches 450 pounds or something like that. I bench 450. He’s right up there with me, so it just shows you the potential and what we can truly do as a team. If you look at us, we’re big now. Let’s go.”
The Wave has gone nowhere in Warmsley’s three seasons, stretching a bowl-less streak to 10 years and making it eight years in a row with four or fewer wins. Among Football Bowl Subdivision teams that have been around for more than a few years, only UNLV, New Mexico State and Eastern Michigan are on longer bowl droughts.
Generous defense played a huge role in Tulane’s problems. On Warmsley’s watch, the Wave finished 74th nationally in yards allowed in 2010, 83rd in 2011 and 114th in 2012, wearing down during games and seasons because it did not have enough bodies or bulk. Warmsley earned honorable mention All-Conference USA honors last year and made 5½ sacks as a sophomore but did not get enough help.
The help has arrived.
LSU graduate transfer Chris Davenport, a former five-star recruit who never found a role with the Tigers, dominates practices at nose guard, using his 6-foot-4, 334-pound frame to shed blockers.
Freshman tackle Tanzel Smart, a 6-2, 331-pound load with light feet from Scotlandville, repeatedly goes over and around blockers in one-on-one drills.
Former Arkansas linebacker Tyler Gilbert (6-3, 244), a junior transfer who has moved to end, is big and fast by Conference USA standards.
“I think we’re going to be the ones wearing down others this year,” Warmsley said. “Everybody’s working extremely hard to break the plateau and the quote-unquote (losing) legacy that Tulane has. It’s a totally different era at Tulane right now.”
Warmsley is not the only senior defender thrilled with the influx of talent. Kyle Davis, projected to start at weakside linebacker after playing safety for most of 2012, raved about the newcomers.
With Tulane’s starting secondary returning intact, the play up front could make a huge difference.
“It makes it a lot easier for us as safeties and as linebackers,” he said. “You don’t have to worry about the quarterback having all day to throw the ball. You don’t have to worry about the running back having two or three gaps to run through.
“It was a big struggle being undersized down low in the trenches. Now everybody is playing really dominant up front.”
It’s not just sloppy size, either. Smart, who already has worked his way into the tackle rotation, consistently has beaten blockers with his quickness. Davenport does more than simply occupy space.
“Me and Chris Davenport and the other guys with size, we can move, too,” Smart said. “It’s going to be good. We are going to get good ball pressure in the backfield and cause some havoc.”
Second-year coach Curtis Johnson knew the defense needed a dramatic upgrade after watching opponents rush for 222.9 yards per game and average 5.1 yards per carry last season.
The transition has been swift, and he threw in two more freshman ends as potential difference-makers.
“Our size and athleticism is so much better,” he said. “In this league, there’s very few speed rushers with size like Tyler Gilbert. You look at (Belle Chasse product) Quinlan Carroll — you have a real dynamic guy who can rush the passer. Luke Jackson (St. Charles Catholic) can rush the passer, so you’re finally starting to get kids who can do those things.”
The list does not even include freshman linebacker Edward Williams, who impressed the coaches in the first week of drills before spraining an ankle. When he returns, the front seven will get more athletic.
Warmsley is giddy about the potential payoff. After suffering through eight wins and 29 losses in three years, he can almost taste the turnaround as the linemen no longer have to pace themselves during games in an attempt to stay fresh for the second half.
“We’ve always had depth issues,” he said. “Now it’s awesome being able to go like five plays and then, ‘OK, come on out.’ We can go as hard as we want and as hard as we need to.”