Justyn Shackleford stood on the sideline Thursday morning and caught every pass wide receivers coach Keith Williams threw to him in a drill, even though fellow receiver Devon Breaux kept jumping in front to distract him.
The problem for Shackleford — the lone veteran left among a kiddie corps of receivers — has been maintaining that consistency in games.
Although he is three receptions away from tying his career best of 36, he entered the season with much higher expectations.
“I just feel like I haven’t been making (catches) like I need to and being as open as I should,” he said. “It’s been bad. I haven’t been playing my best games, and our passing game hasn’t been going well lately. It’s been hard.”
When two-time 1,000-yard receiver Ryan Grant headed to the NFL after 2013, Shackleford figured to be Tulane’s go-to-guy. He had caught between 28 to 36 passes for 404 to 431 yards in each of his first three seasons, and he had five touchdown grabs last year — second only to Grant. Coach Curtis Johnson talked about Shackleford’s ambitions for the NFL in August.
Through three games, he was right on pace, making 17 receptions for 251 yards and two scores. Since then, his biggest output was four catches for 37 yards in Tulane’s 38-7 homecoming loss to Memphis last Saturday.
Part of the problem has been a banged-up shoulder that limited his effectiveness. Another factor is the absence of fellow senior Xavier Rush, who suffered a season-ending ACL tear in a late-October practice.
“I think (losing Rush) has affected us a lot in the pass game with a senior receiver going down,” Shackleford said. “I mean he was an older guy. He helps spread the defense and everything when he was out there and now we have a lot of young guys.”
One of those youngsters, freshman Teddy Veal, has matched Shackleford’s 33 receptions. Shackleford has not even started the last four games, with Veal and true freshmen Terren Encalade and Leondre James splitting those duties.
Tulane’s game against East Carolina this Saturday may be Shackleford’s best chance to emerge from his slump. The Pirates lead the American Athletic Conference in run defense but are eighth in pass defense, allowing 16 touchdown passes.
“I need a big game a lot,” Shackleford said. “It would build some confidence back in myself.”
The entire passing operation looked shaky against Memphis. Although Shackleford caught four balls, he also watched one of redshirt freshman quarterback Tanner Lee’s throws sail over his head and another go wide of him when he was open.
The play he remembered most, though, was a pass that went right through his hands.
“Tanner has confidence in us receivers, so we have to build his confidence out here on the field,” he said. “Some days we probably haven’t been doing the best at that. We have to come out here and catch every ball.”
What they’re missing
Although Tulane would gladly trade its losing season for bowl eligibility, the Green Wave is not missing much in terms of prestige.
The AAC’s bowl lineup is a low-watt, with five tie-ins to minor bowls against power-conference also-rans.
Earlier this week, Stewart Mandel of FoxSports.com projected likely 10-win Memphis to play BYU in the inaugural Miami Beach Bowl on Dec. 22; UCF to play ACC No. 10 selection North Carolina State in the St. Petersburg Bowl on Dec. 26; East Carolina to play ACC No. 7 Boston College in the Military Bowl (Annapolis, Md.; Dec. 27); Houston to play California in the Armed Forces Bowl (Fort Worth, Texas; Jan. 2); and Cincinnati to play South Carolina in the Birmingham Bowl on Jan. 3.
Temple (5-5) still has a chance to become bowl-eligible, but Mandel predicted the Owls will be left out if they finish 6-6.
Tulane has received significant contributions from freshmen at almost every position this year, but one exception is defensive end.
Redshirt freshmen Ade Aruna (six tackles) and Quinlan Carroll (two tackles) are injured and will not play against East Carolina. True freshman Daren Williams, who started the opener against Tulsa because Royce LaFrance was suspended for the first half, has eight tackles. Peter Woullard is being redshirted.
Junior Royce LaFrance and senior Tyler Gilbert have accounted for 55 of Tulane’s 76 tackles at end.
“I’m not disappointed (with the play of the freshmen) at all,” coach Curtis Johnson said. “Tyler was playing so well and Royce is playing so well. You look at the stats and you have to play those guys.”