Right when it looked like Tulane’s running game had expanded from a two-man threat into a viable three-back rotation, it may have shrunk back down.

Tulane coach Curtis Johnson said the Green Wave (2-6, 1-3 American) may be without its top two running backs for Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. game against Houston (5-3, 3-1) at TDECU Stadium.

Redshirt freshman Sherman Badie and sophomore Lazedrick Thompson were sidelined by ankle injuries in the second half of Tulane’s 38-14 loss to Cincinnati last Friday night. Neither practiced on Tuesday and both are considered questionable, though Johnson said Badie should be closer to game-ready than Thomspon, since he’s not in a walking boot.

“It’s always a concern when you lose a player like Sherman, who is probably our most dynamic player on offense,” Johnson said. “Then, your most physical player on offense is out (Thompson). They are both some of the older players on our offense because one is a redshirt freshman and one is a sophomore, so it’s a huge concern. Hopefully (the training staff) can do a good job and we can get those guys back in some capacity.”

If not, Johnson is thankful another quality option has emerged. True freshman Dontrell Hilliard piled up 123 yards on just 11 carries last week, thrust into extended action after Badie and Thompson were rendered unavailable.

The outburst nearly doubled his production for the entire season (now at 254 yards on 44 carries) and marked the third Tulane rusher to eclipse 100 yards in a game for the first time since a trio of backs helped carry the 1998 squad to an undefeated season.

More urgently, it gives Tulane’s offense faith that it’s reliable groung game may not take a noticeable hit without Badie and Thomspon against a stout Cougars’ defense.

“I thought Dontrell played tremendously for a freshman coming into an environment like that and to rush for that many yards against a defense like that,” Johnson said. “I thought that defense was really well-prepared and his protections were good. (Quarterback) Tanner (Lee) only got hit four times and two of them were Tanner’s own fault.”

Johnson also said he may have to dig deeper into the depth chart mentioning walk-on Marshall Wadleigh and former linebacker-turned-fullback Sergio Medina.

“Our line has done a really good job of blocking for all of the backs so whether those guys can play or if we have Dontrell, Dante (Butler) or anybody else, I think we will run the ball well,” Lee said. “I just have to do my part and make sure we finish drives.”

Steady locker room

It’s not typical for a soft-spoken sophomore to be one of the most respected people in a locker room.

But Nico Marley has earned his place, starting 20 of his 21 collegiate games, carving his niche as the best linebacker on the roster.

Despite the 2-6 start, Marley said he hasn’t seen any drop-off to this point in the Green Wave’s daily routine or any general signs of discouragement. While he admitted players were more upbeat during last year’s 6-2 start, he isn’t concerned about the team flailing down the stretch.

“There’s a maturity level in the locker room, even though we’re pretty young, so I don’t have to be the guy yelling at everybody,” Marley said. “It’s just about making sure everyone is practicing hard and keeps the mindset right.

“People have some wear and tear by this time of year and it’s been a long time since the start of camp, not to mention summer. Minds can start to wander off — but once they get back in the facility, everything seems to get back to business as usual, and I haven’t seen a problem.”

Tackling troubles

Junior cornerback Lorenzo Doss said it wasn’t a fun film session to start the week.

Tulane’s veteran secondary missed a series of tackles in allowing Cincinnati to break loose with an array of big plays while it piled up 479 yards of total offense. Johnson pinpointed several unorthodox misses by safeties Darion Monroe and Sam Scofield, who are two of Tulane’s most reliable defenders.

“It was just one of those games,” Doss said. “We all have games like that. It just wasn’t their game and it wasn’t my game neither, because I missed a couple of tackles too. So I can’t really speak about them.”