On the opening play of Tulane’s first spring scrimmage on Saturday, tight end Trey Scott raced behind the secondary for a 45-yard reception from quarterback Tanner Lee. If you talk to Scott and those around him, it was a preview of many more big gains to come.
Coach Curtis Johnson named Scott, a rising sophomore, as his most improved player on offense. Lee praised his raised confidence. And Scott playfully trashed the defender who tried to cover him on his catch, which turned out to be the longest play of the day.
“I created a mismatch,” he said. “(Safety) Leonard Davis actually covered me, and I burned him. He thought I was running a flat route, but then I jumped inside of him. It was over from there.”
The only mismatch in evidence with Scott last year was between the ball and his hands. That’s harsh, but he earned the description by dropping the first three or four passes thrown to him as a true freshman. He was shaky the rest of the way, finishing with 10 catches for 91 yards in a passing game that struggled in almost every department.
Coming from a run-dominated high school offense — Georgia Class 6A state semifinalist Powder Springs McEachern — he needed time to get comfortable as a receiver.
“It was all mental,” he said. “It was not making eye contact with the ball. I was trying to run first instead of making the catch first. My goal was to score touchdowns.”
Excited by his potential, the coaches kept putting him on the field, anticipating a payoff in the future. With fellow freshman Charles Jones making 21 receptions and a team-high-tying three touchdown catches, they envisioned the tight ends as complementary pieces.
They are starting to see the results this spring.
“The stuff we’re doing with the tight ends is like the New England Patriots,” Johnson said. “You watch Charles, who’s big and physical, and Trey, who can run, and I love what those guys are doing.”
Jones, the bigger target at 6-foot-3, 245 pounds, can line up at the traditional spot next to the right tackle. Scott, a 6-foot-2, 212-pound tweener with excellent speed, can play the slot.
The key was getting him past the Russian roulette stage with his hands. Tight ends coach David Johnson worked with his hand placement and asked him to catch extra balls before and after practice and in the offseason.
The difference in practice the past few weeks has been noticeable.
“For a minute I didn’t think he could catch at all, but I like where he is,” Curtis Johnson said. “Early on he was a little bit nervous. Now he’s awesome. He’s outstanding.”
Scott’s skill set matches up perfectly with Tulane’s needs. With only three scholarship wide receivers available for spring practice, he has spent plenty of time with that group. He says his time in the 40 is below 4.5, so he has no problem keeping up with them.
“He’s real explosive and really stretches the defense,” David Johnson said. “That’s major for us. If you put a linebacker on him, they’re not going to be able to run with him, and even most safeties. He’s doing a great job.”
The role fits his personality.
“It definitely helps that he’s confident,” Lee said. When we’re out here during workouts, he’s racing the safeties and hanging out with the skill guys as much as he can.”
The trick will be translating his self-belief into games next fall. He kept playing last year because the coaches did not want to shatter his confidence, part of Curtis Johnson’s philosophy with freshmen.
After watching what Jeremy Shockey and Jimmy Graham could do in the Saints offense when he was an assistant there, Johnson always has wanted to duplicate that approach at Tulane. He did not have the right players in his first two years, when the Green Wave tight ends caught 20 passes for 78 yards in 2012 and 16 passes for 111 yards in 2013 with zero touchdowns.
Last year, Scott lacked the experience to excel. He sees nothing to hold him back as a sophomore.
“They needed me to get better, so I had to step up to the plate,” he said. I’m trying to be an all-conference player this year, if not All-American. Those are my goals.”
Current Washington Redskins receiver Ryan Grant attended Wednesday morning’s practice along with Saints quarterbacks Ryan Griffin. Johnson loves having former players around who are in the NFL and has extended an invitation to Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte, who rushed for more than 2,000 yards at Tulane in 2007.
“It’s about time we start getting some guys to come back,” Johnson said. “It’s critical in our situation because we’re so young. We even had a visit from old Shaun King last week. I wish (Forte) would come back from Chicago to pay our players a visit. I’ve sent messages, and he hasn’t been able to.”
Tulane running backs Lazedrick Thompson, Dontrell Hilliard and Sherman Badie are coming off productive seasons.
“I think these backs are going to play in the NFL,” Johnson said. “I’d like (Forte) to come back and tutor these guys.”
Tulane will practice again Friday morning before having its spring game from 10 a.m to noon Saturday at Yulman Stadium. … Johnson lauded new special teams coach Doug Lichtenberger for implementing conditioning work for his kickers and coming up with effective drills in practice, but the one thing Lichtenberger cannot do is get them to kick the ball through the uprights. Andrew DiRocco missed a 47-yarder wide right in Wednesday’s workout after making attempts from 20, 32 and 42 yards. Trevor Simms missed from every distance except 20 yards.