Tulane’s coaches don’t want Royce LaFrance reading this.
Several members of the Green Wave staff spoke bluntly when asked about the highly decorated junior defensive end, despite him being named to Phil Steele’s preseason All-American Athletic Conference first team this summer, after his 6.5 sacks and 10 tackles-for-loss last year.
“I’m always worried about that because this game is about how well you can handle the distractions,” Tulane coach Curtis Johnson said. “Sometimes the hype is just a distraction.”
And Johnson isn’t buying into the publicity. While the third-year coach praised the progress of Tulane’s defensive line earlier in the week, he awarded LaFrance no plaudits. Instead, he publicly criticized LaFrance for lackadaisical effort during the first two weeks of preseason camp and made it known, despite the preseason award lists, that a starting spot was not guaranteed.
“We are demanding a lot of him,” Tulane co-defensive coordinator Jon Sumrall said. “He’s not a freshman. We have high expectations of him and we are not going to let him rest on his laurels and we sure aren’t going to let him read his press clippings and allow him feel comfortable about where he is. He has not arrived yet.
“When you have a good year and you hear some of that outside noise about you being a good player, you have to remember what made you a good player and keep looking at it. Because if you’re thinking about whatever list you made, it’s not helpful, it’s just a distraction.”
The message to LaFrance is clear. Last year doesn’t matter and preseason honors are only about last year. Meanwhile, Johnson said senior defensive end Tyler Gilbert has performed better than any defensive lineman and raised his level of play into the stratosphere.
Johnson also credited highly recruited freshman end Daren Williams for his professional approach just a month into his college career. Even LaFrance said Williams is far ahead of where he was as a newcomer, and he expects to face plenty of competition from Williams for the rest of camp.
“The one thing we are not going to tolerate around here are guys who loaf,” Johnson said. “(LaFrance) has got to keep going harder, harder and harder. I see Daren Williams and he is going 40 yards down the field every play. He hustles, runs and chases the ball. I need Royce to do those things and I think today was his best day.”
The sudden improvement isn’t by accident. LaFrance admitted the pressure that comes with high expectations recently caught up to him. He felt some coaches were unfairly targeting him early in camp, which became increasingly frustrating. But ultimately, the Helen Cox graduated recognized their goal, which is to prepare him for the fall, when opposing offense will have his No. 48 circled from the start of game week.
“It got to a point where it felt like these guys were just picking on me,” LaFrance said. “But they are just trying to get me better and if they think running me through the goal line every play is going to get me better, then that’s what I have to do. It’s going to help me make more plays and keep everyone on their toes.”
The 6-foot-4, 265-pounder possesses the speed of a linebacker (his high school position) but gained the strength to shed blocks and disorient offensive tackles. The physical ability is what made a variety of publications take notice and got league coaches to award him with an honorable mention spot on the All-Conference USA postseason team.
“We are just trying to get the best out of him, and when you have good players you have to be especially hard on them,” defensive line coach Kwhan Drake said. “C.J. believes the best players get coached the hardest and we know how to do that.
“Last year, he had 6.5 sacks and we think he can expand on that and possibly have 10 or more and we need to increase his play on first and second down against the run. The only way to do that is to make him work and get everything out of him he can give.”