Devon Breaux was open on a quick slant in an 11-on-11 drill during Tulane’s opening practice of the preseason Wednesday, and Tanner Lee threw a strike right into his hands.
He dropped the pass.
A little later, Teddy Veal caught a quick hitch, tried to make a move and had the ball stripped from him. Fumble.
Other than Lee’s development in his second year as starting quarterback, Tulane’s primary concern on offense is at wide receiver, where it has little experience and even less depth. The Green Wave approached preseason camp with five scholarship wideouts, and only one of them, Breaux, had been on campus for more than a year.
The number grew to six when coach Curtis Johnson awarded a scholarship in July to former walk-on Larry Dace, who has two years of eligibility left but zero career catches.
The other wideouts are Veal and fellow sophomore Terren Encalade, along with true freshmen Andrew Hicks and Rickey Preston.
“I feel pretty confident,” Veal said. “We’re short at depth at receiver, but you have to make it work out the best way you can. Everybody is held accountable, so we have to go after it.”
At least this group has more experience than last year, when a season-ending injury to Xavier Rush in late October left the Wave with senior Justyn Shackleford (injured shoulder) and a gaggle of freshmen in key roles.
Veal led the team with 40 catches but for only 381 yards. Encalade added 20 receptions for 235 yards, while Breaux, a junior who started the first two games before dropping down the depth chart, finished with only seven catches.
The combined touchdown total for the returning wide receivers was two — both by Veal.
“I don’t want to be in the situation where I’m playing that many freshmen ever again,” offensive coordinator Eric Price said. “It was very hard. Tanner was trying to tell everyone what to do and organize the whole thing in the huddle, and there were times where everybody was screaming and yelling.”
To relieve the daunting depth issue, Price has identified four more players who will split out wide at times — tight end Trey Scott and running backs Sherman Badie, Dontrell Hilliard and Devin Glenn. The first three — all freshmen a year ago — combined for 64 catches in 2014. Although Scott contributed only 10 of those receptions because of shaky hands, the staff expects him to improve tremendously.
“He’s a mismatch guy, that’s what he is,” coach Curtis Johnson said. “We’re going to move him around a lot.”
Glenn, a 5-foot-8, 164-pound freshman from Warren Easton, has turned heads two days into preseason drills.
“We are already creating stuff for him,” Johnson said. “He reminds me of a mini-(Darren) Sproles. I like where he is, and I like what he’s doing.”
Breaux’s development will be pivotal, too. Although he struggled from start to finish last year, he became the first Tulane male athlete in 14 years to compete in NCAA track and field championships this spring, qualifying in the long jump with a leap of 24 feet, 9 ¾ inches.
He hopes to translate that confidence to the football field.
“Being successful is a mindset,” he said. “All I can do is learn from the mistakes I had in the past. I really need to work on coming off the ball, coming back to the ball and having strong hands.”
Dace could make an impact, too, filling a spot that was supposed to go to McDonogh 35 product Darius Williams, a 2015 signee. NCAA Clearinghouse issues have kept Williams from enrolling, and he is not listed on the Wave’s roster at this point.
After earning honorable mention all-state honors as a senior at St. Aug in 2012 (32 catches, eight touchdowns), Dace attended Tulane on a legislative scholarship and walked on to the team. Two days into practice, he has caught as many passes as anyone on the roster, prompting Johnson to say he will be part of the receiver rotation.
“I like the fact that he had to earn everything,” Lee said. “It forced him to have a work ethic unlike anybody else’s really. He’s got a great feel for the game and is real smart. He runs probably the best routes on the team.”