If Tulane quarterback Tanner Lee’s confidence did not waver during a rough debut season, his performance certainly did.
Kicking off spring practice on a chilly Wednesday morning at Yulman Stadium, Lee and his teammates began trying to heat up a passing game that was ice cold for most of 2014 as the Green Wave slipped to 3-9 while finishing 122nd out of 125 football bowl subdivision teams in pass efficiency.
Lee, a redshirt freshman, failed to throw a touchdown pass in five of his last seven games. His completion percentage (.551), passing yards (1,962) and interception total (14) also were not what he expected after throwing for 262 yards and three scores against Tulsa in his first game.
“I just want to be sharp,” he said. “I want to be confident and be the best for my team and make my guys better and have everybody else have confidence in me and just really steamroll into the offseason.”
That’s a lot of “ands” for a quarterback coming off a season with plenty of “buts” that qualified his poor numbers.
His numbers were negligible, but he played with a young core of receivers whose lack of experience hindered what Tulane could even attempt to do. True freshmen Teddy Veal, Dontrell Hilliard, Charles Jones and Terren Encalade all were among the Wave’s top six in catches.
“The fact that Teddy enrolled early (January of 2014) made him a veteran,” Lee said, smiling. “We had true freshman veterans.”
Lee appeared to get worse rather than better as the year went along, but his dip in production correlated to injuries in the backfield that produced a significant drop-off in the running game. After rushing for 150 or more yards four times in the first half of the season, Tulane reached that total only twice the rest of the way.
“Early on in the season we ran the ball so well that it was run and it was play-action, run and then play-action,” coach Curtis Johnson said. “When our backs begin to go down, we put more on the shoulder of Lee with young receivers. He wasn’t going to win that battle.”
Lee possessed the arm strength to make every throw required of an elite quarterback, but he had never faced a college defense before and spent only one season as a full-time starting quarterback at Jesuit High. He was not ready to read sophisticated defenses.
“His decisions have to be a little better than they were last year,” Johnson said. “They were pretty good today. He threw a couple out of bounds (when no one was open). His ball placement is so much better than a year ago.”
Lee missed two chances for two long touchdown completions near the end of Wednesday’s practice because of excellent defense. Nickel back Jarrod Franklin, playing for the first time since tearing three knee ligaments last spring, outleaped and then outfought wide receiver Devon Breaux to snag a fade pass in the end zone. Cornerback Parry Nickerson appeared beaten on a post pattern before slapping the ball away at the last second.
The results were the same as in most of last year, but they also were different. Tulane’s passing game rarely came close to clicking in 2014.
“We have to put last season behind us,” Lee said. “We sat in there at the same time and watched all the cut-ups. They were tough to watch sometimes, but we have to learn from it, and everybody is out here with a clean mind. We have a season under our belt and should be a lot better.”
LaFrance, James out
Johnson said James and senior defensive end Royce LaFrance would miss spring practice for different reasons.
LaFrance, who made 34 tackles with a team-high six sacks last year, is out for academic issues but is expected to be eligible for the fall semester. He worked out on an exercise bike on the side of the field Wednesday.
His absence leaves Tulane with only freshmen and sophomores at end this spring. Sophomore Daren Williams had the most tackles --10--of the bunch in 2014.
“It’s good, though, because I get some guys like (redshirt sophomore) Ade (Aruna) taking every rep,” Johnson said. “I saw him improve from early on to late in practice. I know what Royce can do.”
James, a Donaldsonville product who had 15 catches and became Tulane’s primary kickoff returner as a freshman, is suspended for an unspecified violation of team policy. His absence leaves Tulane with three scholarship wide receivers for spring ball—Breaux, Teddy Veal and Terren Encalade.
Defensive tackle Corey Redwine practiced after changing his mind about leaving the team.
Redwine, whom Johnson said graduated in December, elected to go through senior ceremonies before Tulane’s final home game against Temple despite having a year of eligibility left. He started the first five games in 2014 before losing his spot to Sean Wilson.
“He (Redwine) wanted to get his master’s, and the coaches really wanted him back,” Johnson said. “He’s a good kid, so he’s back.”
Former Tulane quarterback and current Saints backup Ryan Griffin attended practice and gave Lee some pointers during the workout. … Offensive lineman Alex Paul, a Newman product who gave up football because of chronic knee issues, was in the stands as a video coordinator on Wednesday. … Franklin said he was playing the same nickel role he excelled at last spring before getting hurt, adding his knee felt 100-percent healthy. … Tulane will practice again Friday and Saturday.