Photos: Tulane fans _lowres

Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD -- Tulane receiver Justyn Shackleford scores the first points in Yulman Stadium on a tipped pass from quarterback Tanner Lee on Sept. 6, 2014.

FIVE QUESTIONS, FIVE ANSWERS

1. Is quarterback Tanner Lee ready to succeed?

That was the expectation last year when coach Curtis Johnson named Lee his starter early in the preseason, relegating 2013 starter Nick Montana to backup status. Lee, then a redshirt freshman, finished 101th nationally in pass efficiency, throwing more interceptions (14) than touchdowns (12).

After he learned on the job for a year, the answer this time is a qualified maybe. Although Lee has the right attitude and an above-average arm, he needs to improve dramatically as a decision-maker and will have inexperienced receivers around him again.

2. Is the offense as a whole ready for a surge?

Lee’s problems hardly were the only issue offensively. Tulane ranked 107th out of 125 FBS teams in yards and 121st in scoring (16.0 points per game), putting up more than 14 points only once in its last eight games. The Wave has not finished in the top 100 in yards in offensive coordinator Eric Price’s three years under coach Curtis Johnson. Still, the pieces are in place for significant improvement.

Tulane has its most experienced offensive line in Johnson’s tenure and running backs who rival any in the American Athletic Conference. All eyes will be on Price to see whether he can take advantage.

3. Will the defense return to the 2013 form that garnered Tulane’s first winning season in 11 years?

The odds are better here, even though the Wave must replace safety Sam Scofield, its leading tackler the past two years, and cornerback Lorenzo Doss, who left for the NFL as a junior. Eight starters return, including three-year starting safety Darion Monroe, do-everything linebacker Nico Marley and stellar defensive tackle Tanzel Smart.

Tulane is strong up the middle, which will give co-coordinators Lionel Washington and Jason Rollins plenty of flexibility in designing a top-notch defense.

4. Can the special teams units be functional, at least?

Tulane’s slide to 3-9 last year from 7-6 in 2013 was unavoidable due to the horrific kicking game alone. Freshman Andrew DiRocco’s 21-yard field-goal miss late in the opener vs. Tulsa set the tone, with the Wave placing last nationally in Phil Steele’s special teams rankings.

Johnson tried to stop the rot by naming Doug Lichtenberger special teams coordinator before spring practice. Finding a decent kicker from the trio of DiRocco, walk-on Trevor Simms and freshman Zach Block is Lichtenberger’s first responsibility. Getting reliable long snaps and revamping the nation’s worst kickoff-return unit are next on the agenda.

5. Is there any buzz left at Yulman Stadium — in just its second year?

The pregame atmosphere on campus improved exponentially with the move from the Superdome, but the product on the field did not. The announced sellout crowd of 30,000 for the first game against Georgia Tech dwindled to 20,612 for the season finale vs. Temple, and the actual attendance for that December game was much smaller.

The answer boils down to winning and entertainment value. Tulane was 2-4 at home last year, getting outscored 124-45 in the losses. If the Wave beats some quality opponents, the fans will return. If not, that 2014 opener will be a fading memory.

WHAT TULANE IS LOOKING FORWARD TO

Opening night against Duke: Beating the Blue Devils in prime time would get the fans excited again. Tulane last knocked off a major-conference opponent at Rutgers in 2010 and has not done it in New Orleans since 2003 versus Mississippi State.

Experience: Tulane’s struggles in 2014 were predictable with seven key players gone on defense and a redshirt freshman quarterback surrounded by a core of freshman wideouts. This time, 16 starters are back, the same number as in the 2013 bowl season.

A focused LaFrance: Royce LaFrance, a senior who was held out of spring practice, can become Tulane’s first double-digit sack guy since Brian Douglas in 1981. Last year he was wildly inconsistent and still managed to register six sacks.

Familiarity and continuity: Tulane had too many firsts a year ago, playing in Yulman Stadium for the first time and in the AAC for the first time. This year, the Wave knows what to expect and won’t have to take a bus to and from practice while its stadium is being built.

FOUR POSITION BATTLES TO WATCH

Wide receiver: Sophomore Teddy Veal, the only returning wideout who scored last year, is a certain starter, but the other roles are wide open. Sophomore Terren Encalade (20 catches in 2014) will compete with junior Devon Breaux (seven receptions) and some incoming freshmen.

Middle linebacker: Heralded junior Edward Williams was not on the two-deep depth chart at the end of spring after an up-and-down sophomore season. He will try to win the job against steadier junior Eric Thomas.

Running back: It is a battle of riches, with Sherman Badie, Lazedrick Thompson and Dontrell Hilliard all possessing different running styles and the capability for big years. It may come down to who stays healthy; Badie and Thompson battled injuries last season.

Kicker: DiRocco was just 8-for-15 a year ago. Strong-legged but erratic senior Trevor Simms, who missed badly on his only attempt last season, had the edge after spring. Freshman Zach Block will get a shot, too.

THREE NEWCOMERS TO KEEP AN EYE ON

WR Rickey Preston: With only three returning scholarship players, Tulane has a gaping need at receiver, and Preston (6-1, 174), from Hahnville High, is the most equipped of the freshmen to contribute immediately. He committed to Washington State but never signed, choosing the Wave in May.

CB Dedrick Shy: The coaches are high on Shy, a Warren Easton product who has the smarts to pick up the defense quickly. He should compete for the open starting cornerback spot opposite Parry Nickerson or at least play his way into a nickel role.

DT John Washington: The Wave has limited depth behind starters Tanzel Smart and Sean Wilson. Washington, who played for West Monroe, is big enough (6-foot-1, 303 pounds) to provide some help right away at a position that needs to be four-deep.

KEY DATES

WEDNESDAY: First practice

AUG. 10: Media Day

AUG. 11: First day of two-a-days

Sept. 3: Season opener vs. Duke

PROJECTED DEPTH CHART

Offense

Wide receiver

5 Terren Encalade 6-1 186 So.

8 Devon Breaux 6-0 181 Jr.

Wide receiver

9 Teddy Veal 6-0 192 So.

15 Rickey Preston 6-1 174 Fr.

Left tackle

68 Arturo Uzdavinis 6-7 305 Sr.

72 John Leglue 6-7 298 RFr.

Left guard

61 Colton Hanson 6-6 305 Jr.

71 Jason Stewart 6-5 389 So.

Center

66 Nathan Shienle 6-5 311 Jr.

51 Junior Diaz 6-3 292 RFr.

Right guard

75 Chris Taylor 6-3 320 Jr.

78 Todd Jacquet 6-5 292 Jr.

Right tackle

79 Kenneth Santa Marina 6-6 324 So.

74 Devon Johnson 6-4 324 RFr.

Tight end

84 Charles Jones 6-4 234 So.

83 Trey Scott 6-2 222 So.

Quarterback

12 Tanner Lee 6-4 220 So.

1 Devon Powell 6-3 241 Jr.

Fullback

33 Lazedrick Thompson 6-0 219 Jr.

46 Sergio Medina 5-11 214 Jr.

Running back

3 Sherman Badie 5-11 199 So.

26 Dontrell Hilliard 5-11 195 So.

Defense

Defensive end

48 Royce LaFrance 6-3 259 Sr.

90 Robert Kennedy 6-1 243 RFr.

Defensive tackle

77 Tanzel Smart 6-1 304 Jr.

99 Calvin Thomas 6-3 275 Jr.

Nose tackle

94 Sean Wilson 6-3 271 So.

96 Corey Redwine 6-2 328 Sr.

Defensive end

92 Daren Williams 6-3 243 So.

87 Ade Aruna 6-5 241 So.

Middle linebacker

52 Eric Thomas 5-11 243 Jr.

43 Edward Williams 6-1 233 Jr.

Weakside linebacker

20 Nico Marley 5-10 208 Jr.

56 Rae Juan Marbley 5-11 231 So.

Nickelback

6 Jarrod Franklin 6-1 208 So.

37 Rene Fleury 6-1 183 So.

Cornerback

17 Parry Nickerson 6-0 182 So.

32 Stephon Lofton 5-11 174 RFr.

Strong safety

10 Leonard Davis 6-0 198 Jr.

13 William Townsend 6-0 217 So.

Free safety

2 Darion Monroe 5-11 206 Sr.

30 Tristan Cooper 6-0 181 So.

Cornerback

23 Richard Allen 5-10 178 Jr.

21 Donnie Lewis Jr. 6-0 178 RFr.

Special teams

Kicker

42 Andrew DiRocco -or- 6-1 173 So.

36 Trevor Simms 6-4 199 Sr.

Punter

31 Peter Picerelli 6-1 194 Sr.

49 Zachary Block 6-4 182 Fr.

Deep snapper

97 Michael Lizanich 5-11 210 Jr.

72 John Leglue 6-7 298 RFr.

Holder

31 Peter Picerelli 6-1 194 Sr.

16 Jordy Joseph 5-10 199 Sr.

Kick returner

3 Sherman Badie 5-11 199 So.

8 Devon Breaux 6-0 181 Jr.

Punt returner

9 Teddy Veal 6-0 192 So.

5 Terren Encalade 6-1 186 So.