Tulane freshmen Veal, Diaz getting early starts

Advocate photo by VERONICA DOMINACH --Wide receiver, Niguel Veal catches the ball during Tulane's football spring practice at the Tad Gormley Stadium in New Orleans, La. Saturday, Feb. 15, 2014.
Advocate photo by VERONICA DOMINACH --Wide receiver, Niguel Veal catches the ball during Tulane's football spring practice at the Tad Gormley Stadium in New Orleans, La. Saturday, Feb. 15, 2014.

Niguel Veal and Raul Diaz sacrificed the last semester of high school to get a leg up on their freshman football season.

Through two weeks of Tulane spring football practices, each are proving the decision was a wise one.

The pair has impressed coach Curtis Johnson and admittedly surprised their position coaches when live drills got going earlier in the month. Veal, the shifty receiver out of West Jefferson High School, and Diaz, the coveted center out of Miami, flashed an ability to not only make an immediate impact on the Green Wave’s depth chart but could possibly challenge for starting roles come August.

“It’s a big time bonus,” Johnson said. “We really hadn’t done (early enrollees) before but I think both of those guys are showing they are ready to play a lot. To get an extra spring in, puts them in a whole different place when we open camp.

“They had talked about wanting to start early but we really had to work on getting them into school and getting the right paperwork in at the right time and it really worked out great for them. I couldn’t be happier with those two guys.”

Diaz (who prefers to called “Junior” rather than Raul) stood out in particular because of his position. Unlike Veal (who prefers to be called “Teddy” rather than Niguel) , his playmaking counterpart, Diaz’s spot in the heart of the offensive line usually several years to grow into both mentally and physically.

However, the 6-foot-2, 277-pounder wasted no time capturing the attention of his teammates, despite his youth an inexperience. Diaz let his physicality speak for him from the opening snap.

“Those defensive tackles noticed him really quick and so did all of the offensive coaches,” offensive line coach John McDonell said. “He is a lot stronger than he looks, especially without pads.

“I also don’t really like the whole idea of early enrollment, and even more so at offensive line. But he may be have me rethinking that. He’s brought a whole new dimension to that position.”

While his freshness and rapid development captured attention from coaches, there’s still a long climb to take place in August. Redshirt sophomore guard Nathan Sheinle has shifted to center this offseason and redshirt freshman Brandon Godfrey is a natural fit.

“When I first walked out here, I thought I was big, but then I saw the guys I was playing next to and had to go up against,” Diaz said. “I knew pretty quickly that I had to get bigger. So I’ve just been eating since then. Overall, I’m really glad I came in early because it’s given me a big advantage because the guys here are great and I feel like they’re pretty much raising me.”

Meanwhile, Veal’s chances to get on the field are abundant but he’s battling to be more than just a situational threat. While Johnson has already said he wants to get the playmaker out in the open field with a chance for big yardage, there’s still a long way to go until he becomes an every down option.

“He’s got all of the natural ability you could ever ask for,” receivers coach Keith Williams said.

“He will pick up the technique in time, but if he wants to move up he’s going to have to learn the playbook and know where he’s supposed be. I can work through or work around his technique but he needs to continue to learn the offense at the pace he is right now.”

Bustling Bailey

An already thin linebacker corps has been cut down in recent weeks due to the absence of Nico Marley (dislocated elbow) and Edward Williams (shoulder) on top of losing two senior starters.

But the silver lining to the lack of depth has been the opportunity to see rising senior Matthew Bailey emerging after consecutive disappointing seasons. The former Karr High School standout went from one of Tulane’s brightest prospects as a freshman, piling up 33 tackles and 3.5 tackles-for-loss off of the bench, to working his way down the depth chart as a junior.

Last year, Bailey made just eight tackles in 11 games and became a bit of an afterthought at a rapidly improving position.

However, this spring, he’s caught the attention of Johnson and linebackers coach Jon Sumrall, who have each commended Bailey’s resurgence when it appears the position group needed a boost.

“Matt hadn’t played very many snaps in games this past year but I think he’s a guy whose name is starting to resurface in meetings because every day it feels like he’s pulling down an interception,” Johnson said. “He’s back to being physical and he’s one of the guys who benefited from the other injuries, because he re-opened my eyes since he’s playing well.”

Alumni Day

Tulane opened up the doors to the New Orleans Saints facility on Saturday afternoon to over 50 former players, who had a chance to not only view practice but also got a chance to speak with players at a luncheon.

It’s an alumni outreach effort Johnson has staged in the past and feels it’s an important part of lending his current players perspective on the program.

“Those were the guys who started this whole thing off and they are very supportive and they pass out a lot of advice to our younger players,” Johnson said. “They are the guys who built Tulane’s program and we want to honor them and want them around as much as we possibly can.”