With running backs Sherman Badie and Lazedrick Thompson unable to practice Tuesday because of ankle injuries, coach Curtis Johnson faced a tough question as Tulane (2-6, 1-3 American Athletic Conference) prepared for Saturday’s trip to American Athletic Conference co-leader Houston (5-3, 3-1).
If that dynamic duo sits out, how much can he trust a passing game with redshirt freshman quarterback Tanner Lee throwing to the youngest receivers in college football?
Remarkably, true freshmen made 17 of the 19 receptions by Tulane wide receivers or tight ends last Friday against Cincinnati.
Teddy Veal led the way with seven catches for 73 yards, followed by Terren Encalade (five catches, 41 yards), tight end Charles Jones (two catches, 25 yards, one touchdown), wide receiver Leondre James (two catches, 14 yards) and tight end Trey Scott (one catch, 10 yards).
All of them were playing prep football last season. Now they have to play key roles to give Tulane any chance to end a 19-game losing streak outside of Louisiana that dates to September of their sophomore years of high school.
“When I looked out on the field (against Cincinnati), it was all freshmen playing,” Johnson said. “Tanner was a veteran out there, and he’s a redshirt freshman. They played hard and did the best they could.”
Their best was not good enough. Tulane managed only 14 points against a team that gave up 31 or more in its first five games. The offense had to be simplified, though Lee put up decent numbers in his first start since hurting his throwing shoulder against Rutgers on Sept. 27, going 24 of 35 for 205 yards with one touchdown and zero interceptions.
Simplification is the reality for a lineup loaded with first-year players.
“We’ve changed and changed and changed and changed,” Johnson said. “I don’t know how much more we can change. We were pretty simple as we can be (against Cincinnati).”
The byproduct was a few moments of individual brilliance surrounded by plenty of frustrating ones — particularly on third down. The Wave failed to pick up a first down on all four of its third-down passes in the first half.
“Some of those young receivers, it’s tough for them to see a blitz,” Lee said. “We just have to make sure everybody stays on the same page. They can handle everything we’ve thrown at them, but we have to make plays.”
Jones made one in the second half, snagging a pass Lee threw high and to his back shoulder for a 10-yard touchdown. It was his 12th catch and third scoring reception of the season, tying him for the team lead.
“I told him he saved me,” Lee said. “I felt like I shot-putted it out there too him. I wasn’t sure if it was going to be an all-out blitz, and that’s Charles for you. He’s got great hands. We haven’t seen anything yet, I don’t think. He’s learning so much every day.”
Veal paces the freshmen with 22 catches for 256 yards, including three or more receptions in the last four games.
“You look at young kids around the country, and most of them are just sitting,” Johnson said. “He’s come in from Day 1, and as soon as he was practicing, he was playing. He’s exceeding my expectations. He will only get better. He’s that talented. He’s just young.”
That youth is affecting Johnson’s coaching decisions. When Tulane faced a fourth-and-3 at the Cincinnati 40 late in the first half, he punted with a 17-0 deficit because he did not like the odds of picking up a first down on a pass.
“If I had an experienced team, I would have loved to go for it on fourth down,” he said. “It was third-and-1, and then it turned into fourth-and-3, so I was like, ‘We’re punting it.’ ”
Complicating matters even more is the health of senior wideout Justyn Shackleford, who leads the team with 25 catches for 351 yards. He had just one reception for 9 yards against Cincinnati because of a bad shoulder
Tulane lost its other senior receiver, Xavier Rush, for the season after he tore an ACL in practice last week.
“If you watched the tape, he (Shackleford) was holding (his shoulder) a lot of the game,” Johnson said. “I think he’s going to be better this week. I’d like to rest him, but ‘X’ (Rush) is not here, so we have to roll with him.”
Johnson would prefer to rely on a ground game that produced 175 yards Friday, but Thompson wore a protective boot at Tuesday’s practice and Badie was sidelined, too. They have accounted for 995 of Tulane’s 1,328 rushing yards.
Houston also is much better against the run than Cincinnati, allowing 3.5 yards per carry to the Bearcats’ 5.0.
Freshman Dontrell Hilliard, who gained 123 yards on 11 carries against Cincinnati, will need plenty of help from his fellow freshmen in the passing game.
“It’s where we are now,” Johnson said. “We know we have some guys banged up and we have to count on freshmen. We just have to count on them, continue to coach them and get them better.”