Tulane running back Josh Rounds thought he was competing for a starting spot in August before the coaches told him he was going to be a rare junior redshirt. Rounds’ response to that surprising news is why he is back in the mix for playing time this spring.
Instead of getting angry about sitting out a season, he worked to get better every day while practicing with the scout-team offense to prepare the defense for its opponent each week.
“I understood the situation,” he said. “I definitely improved going against the No. 1 defense every day. I got a lot quicker, and I understand the defense more by playing against the (first team).”
The “situation” was the immediate impact freshman Dontrell Hilliard, a Scotlandville High School graduate, made on the depth chart. With Sherman Badie and Lazedrick Thompson already ticketed for carries, the coaches did not think they had room for a fourth running back, and they did not want to waste another year of Rounds’ eligibility.
As a true freshman, Rounds rushed 17 times for 40 yards, caught 14 passes for 78 yards and returned kickoffs. He had 49 carries for 163 yards, adding 12 receptions for 65 yards, as a sophomore. A junior season like that would have turned him into another Dante Butler, a fourth-year running back who finished his career last fall and lamented not being redshirted earlier.
“We had good depth, and I wanted (Rounds) to grow up a little bit more and get a little bit more physical,” coach Curtis Johnson said. “He is an outstanding player. He has speed through the hole, he can catch and he’s a smart guy. He’s going to help us tremendously this year.”
Rounds — a graduate of McMain just down Claiborne Avenue from Tulane — never considered leaving as he waited for his turn.
“I’m at home getting a great education,” he said. “This is a great city. It’s not like any other place in the world, so it’s a great opportunity. I know I have the ability to go and start somewhere else, but it’s not what I want to do. I feel comfortable here. I have a lot of friends here. Whatever the coaches ask me to do, I’m going to do. I’m not a selfish person.”
One possibility is his moving to slot receiver at times with Tulane’s lack of depth at wideout. More likely, though, is a role as a third-down specialist out of the backfield, taking advantage of his natural receiving skills while keeping him at his most comfortable position.
Rounds rushed for 2,212 yards and 35 touchdowns in his final year at McMain, so he knows what to do with the ball in his hands.
“The first thing I think of when I think of Rounds is he’s tough,” offensive coordinator Eric Price said. “He’s not the biggest guy in the world, but he will hit you hard. He’s very quick and he just gives you 100 percent effort. He’s coming back real hungry.”
Badie, Thompson and Hilliard are back, too, so the question is how Tulane can find time for four running backs. The answer, Johnson said, is the inevitable injuries. When Badie and Thompson got banged up in the second half of 2014, Tulane had to rely heavily on Hilliard, who could not handle the entire offensive package as a true freshman.
This time, Rounds should be ready.
“I have great quickness, I feel like I read the holes pretty well and I have the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield,” he said. “I want to work on my balance a little more and just get back into the groove because since I’ve been here I haven’t really touched the ball that much.”
Tulane practiced indoors at the Saints facility on Wednesday morning, but the lights went out near the end, forcing the Green Wave to venture outside in the rain.
“I didn’t pay the light bill,” Johnson said jokingly. “I’ve never seen it ever happen (at the Saints facility). I asked Carter (Sheridan, the wide receivers coach who worked with the Saints for 11 years before going to Tulane this spring), and he said that never happened. The best thing is it happened at the end.”
The Wave did individual work outside during the delay, and Johnson was quick to praise Saints owner Tom Benson and his staff for letting Tulane practice at the facility. Tulane practiced there frequently while Yulman Stadium was under construction.
“It’s a huge advantage,” said Johnson, who coached wide receivers with the Saints from 2006 to 2011. “Just a day like today we would have gotten nothing done, and now we had a good practice.”
After the wide receivers dropped numerous passes Monday in the fourth practice of the spring, Johnson said they caught everything at the Saints facility. He praised Terren Encalade, Devon Breaux and walk-on Larry Dave specifically. … Tulane’s kickers continued to struggle in Monday’s workout, with Andrew DiRocco and Trevor Simms combining to miss five of eight field goals during a drill once they moved out of chip-shot range. Said Johnson: “I don’t know who’s the starting kicker right now. It may be me. We gotta get some guys to kick the ball through the uprights.”