Surprise starters lead Tulane into season opener

Advocate Staff Photo by Eliot Kamenitz---Quarterbacks Tanner Lee (12), Nick Montana (11) and Jordy Joseph warm up at Tulane football practice on Thursday, August 8, 2013.
Advocate Staff Photo by Eliot Kamenitz---Quarterbacks Tanner Lee (12), Nick Montana (11) and Jordy Joseph warm up at Tulane football practice on Thursday, August 8, 2013.

When Tulane’s preseason practice began, no one was talking about Arturo Uzdavinis and Andre Robinson.

Their ascension to the top of the depth chart was the biggest surprise of camp. When the Green Wave opens against Jackson State at 7 p.m. Thursday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Uzdavinis will protect quarterback Nick Montana’s blind side at left tackle, and Robinson will start at defensive end.

It’s one thing for LSU transfer Chris Davenport, a former-five star recruit who played sparingly in four years with the Tigers, to get his first career start. He was penciled in as a major force in the middle of Tulane’s defensive line the day he stepped on campus as a graduate student last spring.

It’s another thing entirely when guys who could not crack the lineup for a struggling 2-10 team earn starting roles.

Robinson, a 6-foot-1, 235-pound fourth-year junior, is a converted linebacker with zero sacks or tackles for loss in his career. He moved to end last fall after making little impact at linebacker.

Still, he moved up to the first unit quickly this preseason and has stayed there, holding off touted transfer Tyler Gilbert, who contributed at Arkansas two years ago.

“Andre’s really stepped up,” co-defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Jon Sumrall said. “He has really changed his body. He’s been great in the weight room and great in the offseason. He has a great get-off, plays with a high motor and gives guys fits in the pass rush. He also gives guys fits in the run game because he’s really slippery and doesn’t stay blocked. Andre’s a really fun guy to watch play because he plays with great intensity.”

After making 21 tackles as a reserve last season, Robinson found his niche in his second year at his new spot.

“It wasn’t that much of an adjustment to go to defensive end,” he said. “In high school, I played end a little bit. It gets a little tiring going against offensive linemen all the time, but it’s not too bad. When I play, I just let everything go.”

Tulane coach Curtis Johnson repeatedly has said that the defensive line is easily the most improved unit on the team, lending even more significance to Robinson’s rise. With senior Julius Warmsley moving from tackle to start at the other end spot, Robinson also had to fend off Royce LaFrance and Aaron Bryant, who were ahead of him in the pecking order entering spring practice.

“He has a real knack for being around the ball,” Davenport said. “That’s the real upside about him. If we keep him strong and keep him running, he’ll have a good season.”

Uzdavinis (6-6, 295), a third-year sophomore whose only significant playing time came on field goals and extra points last year, ended spring drills as an afterthought behind sophomore Todd Jacquet. Over the summer, he was assigned a number in the 90s usually associated with blocking tight ends in short-yardage situations — not exactly starter material — before a last-minute switch to No. 68.

He has not necessarily won his battle with Jacquet, who is suspended for the Jackson State game for a violation of team policy. Uzdavinis is listed as a co-starter on the depth chart but, during camp, he received more reps with the first unit than Jacquet.

“The best way for me to put it is, he’s starting to get it a little bit,” offensive line coach John McDonnell said. “He didn’t play a lot of high school football. He was kind of a big body I’ve tried to mold into a player and, all of a sudden with coaching and listening to coaching and working and confidence, he’s starting to get it. He’s got a bright future here.”

Uzdavinis hopes his present is pretty good, too. Tulane’s priority entering the year is improving its anemic run blocking — the Wave averaged 39.6 yards on the ground last year — but his largest personal concern is pass blocking.

“A lot of times I overthink some things,” he said. “I just need to be more confident in my pass protection.”

Senior center Zach Morgan has worked on Uzdavinis’ confidence since the end of spring drills, encouraged him to believe in his ability. Uzdavinis, a late bloomer, lettered in football during high school for just one year in Thonotosassa, Fla.

“We spent Fridays and Saturday nights this summer at my house drawing up plays on a whiteboard,” Morgan said. “His confidence level has risen so much. He’s a great athlete. He’s so fast off the ball, and he’s got a great punch. You’ve got to give up to him. He’s worked his butt off.”