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March 30, 2013

Commentary: Improvement in football hinges on O-Line

Tulane offensive line coach John McDonnell stated the obvious as spring practice wrapped up in mid-March, but it bears repeating as we comb over the two-deep post-spring depth chart the Green Wave released earlier this week and try to speculate on the future.

"Spring's been good, but we still have a lot of work to do," McDonnell said. "We're not even close to where we need to be."

There's the rub. Basically, none of this stuff will matter without dramatic improvement from the offensive linemen, who were historically horrible last season when it came to run blocking.

We hear (but didn't see since all but one practice were closed) that Orleans Darkwa ran incredibly well, finally nearing 100 percent after a turf toe (2011) and a high ankle sprain (2012) made him a shell of his freshman self the past two years. Darkwa is the clear No. 1 on the depth chart, with a gaggle of contenders behind him.

We hope Nick Montana will be the answer at quarterback, bringing some of his father's magic while making plays with his arm and his feet. Although he did not look special in the spring game, he had only been on campus for a few months and will get more comfortable with the players around him during the summer. Failing that, others may hope redshirt freshman Devin Powell harnesses his rocket arm and learns how to play quarterback after a predictably rough debut. Montana and Powell are 1-A and 1-B on the depth chart.

We hail the wide receivers as the deepest, most talented group Tulane has possessed in awhile. Ryan Grant, Justyn Shackleford, Xavier Rush and Wilson Van Hooser --a pleasant surprise to see on the two deep after he played sparingly in the spring game --are proven commodities, leaving no room for Marc Edwards or promising youngsters Devin Breaux and Kedrick Banks on the depth chart.

We wonder if LSU transfer Chris Davenport (6-feet-4, 330 pounds), the most physically impressive defensive tackle at Tulane in eons, will play up to the potential he was supposed to have as a five-star recruit in 2009. He made a token appearance in the spring game on a badly sprained ankle, but his presence could completely change the outlook for the front four, which was undersized and underperforming a year ago. Davenport's transfer allowed the versatile Julius Warmsley to shift to end, where the Wave had a greater need.

We worry about the size of the linebackers. The heaviest among the top five coming out of the spring is Zach Davis (listed at 6-feet-0, 214 pounds). Projected starting middle linebacker Dominique Robertson weighs 191 pounds. The other two first-stringers on the depth chart, Matthew Bailey and Kyle Davis, barely crack 200. Barring an immediate impact from late freshman signee Edward Williams (6-feet-3, 230), the Wave won't get any bigger overnight.

We wait for Darion Monroe (zero interceptions, zero breakups) to make a huge impact at free safety. He has a perfect attitude, but he had an imperfect season as a heralded true freshman, admitting he was a little too passive as the last line of defense -essentially scared to give up big plays. Tulane's cornerback play should be solid as Lorenzo Doss and Jordan Batiste improve on impressive freshman debuts, but Monroe needs to be a difference-maker.

We have all these thoughts while recognizing the one true unknown is the offensive line. Tulane rushed for an average of 39.6 yards last season, the second-lowest total among 1,648 teams since the NCAA began keeping track of the statistic on its official website in 1999.

That's not good. Statistically, the Green Wave could double its output this year and still rank at or near the bottom nationally in rushing.

The depth chart says Tulane may have only one starter on the line at the same position as last year -right guard Rio Mares. Center Mike Henry is listed as a co-starter with Zach Morgan, who missed 2012 with a shoulder injury, but most observers expect Morgan to win the job. Incumbent Adam Skidmore is in a dead heat with redshirt freshman Nathan Shienle at left guard (the official wording is Shienle or Skidmore, but all "or" situations are handled alphabetically). Sean Donnelly, last year's starting left tackle, has moved to right tackle to replace departed senior Eric Jones. Sophomore Todd Jacquet, who played as a backup in 2012, is ahead of Arturo Uzdavinis at left tackle.

Maybe Kenneth Santa Marina, the touted 6-foot-7, 330-pound behemoth from McDonough 35, will step in and play right away at a tackle spot. Don't count out Brandon Godfrey or Chris Taylor, either, but none of last year's solid freshman class was ready.

Ultimately, though, it's immaterial who wins the jobs. What matters is that they play a heck of a lot better than last year's green group, individually and as a unit.

Weak schedule or not, the Wave cannot win without that improvement.


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