Defensive line making difference in Tulane victores

Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD -- Tulane defensive tackle Chris Davenport celebrates a defensive stop against North Texas.
Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD -- Tulane defensive tackle Chris Davenport celebrates a defensive stop against North Texas.

It’s fun for Tulane co-defensive coordinator Jon Sumrall to watch film these days.

The man responsible for the Green Wave’s defensive line has watched Tulane fluster and physically overmatch its past two opponents at the line of scrimmage. In victories over Louisiana-Monroe and North Texas, Tulane (4-2, 2-0 Conference USA) allowed just 60 combined rushing yards and 1.37 yards per carry.

The Green Wave’s suddenly staunch run defense will be put to the test again on Saturday at 2:35 p.m. when East Carolina (4-1, 2-0) travels to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in a battle between the two best records in Conference USA.

The defensive improvement serves as a stark contrast to last season and most of the past decade at Tulane, which was more likely to watch opponents run for 60 yards on a single carry than over the course of two weeks. Tulane allowed 222 rushing yards per game in 2012, ranked 114th nationally and rarely found enough healthy or able bodies to even slow down opponents.

“You just look around the meeting room and it’s obvious how different we are,” Sumrall said. “The guys in there are just bigger. We brought in some new pieces who are very imposing and the guys who have been there came back much stronger. But they also clearly understand what we’re asking of them, and we’re not having to repeat ourselves so often about how to fit certain plays or cover up our mistakes.

“As nice as it is to be bigger and stronger, if you don’t properly fit the play and end up in the wrong spot, it’s going to be a busted play and then you give up big gains. We haven’t had that problem much lately.”

For all the mental adjustments, ultimately, size does matter — and the most physically imposing addition is obvious. One look across the Green Wave defense reveals LSU graduate transfer Chris Davenport and his 6-foot-4, 334-pound frame.

The nose tackle, who spent the past two seasons as an offensive lineman, joined the Green Wave in spring practice but admittedly needed time to adjust to the new role. Davenport struggled to make an impact in his first few outings, beyond taking up blockers and freeing room for Tulane’s quick linebackers.

But in the past two weeks, he’s been a consistent presence in opposing backfields, pulling down a sack, a tackle for a loss and even deflected a screen pass into the arms of cornerback Lorenzo Doss, which led to an interception returned for a touchdown.

“It’s just totally different watching film as an offensive player and a defensive player,” Davenport said. “I think that took some time to get used to. I used to always be watching for guys moving around or changing what they’re doing and you don’t get that on the other side.

“Now I’m spending my time breaking down offensive linemen and looking at little things, like where they drop their foot or if they put their hands in a certain position — like a tell. It allows me to attack them in the right way if I know what they’re going to do. Those guys from North Texas were good, but I had them studied and knew what was coming.”

He’s also been aided by the movement of Julius Warmsley, who went from splitting time between defensive end and defensive tackle to a full-time move inside. The senior is using his quickness to knife into the backfield and has piled up seven tackles for loss (third-best in C-USA), two sacks and two forced fumbles.

“Julius is a good end, but he’s ridiculous at tackle,” Davenport said. “He’s too quick for most of those guys one-on-one, so he’s always back there breaking up plays before they even start.”

Sumrall was able to move Warmsley inside thanks to the additions of junior college transfer Tyler Gilbert and former LSU graduate Jeremy Peeples, who shored up questionable depth at defensive end. Now, Sumrall is able to comfortably rotate five defensive ends and five defensive tackles, making sure the fatigue which plagued his unit in the past is no longer an issue.

“Last week I was looking around in the fourth quarter and I saw guys who had played 15 snaps that are really good players and that’s such a luxury because I can put them in and expect them to go full out,” Sumrall said. “Again, we added so much in the offseason, and it took a little time for everyone to adjust, but the results are speaking for themselves in the running game right now.”