When the final second ticked off the clock in Tulane’s 38-7 mashing of Maine on Saturday, linebacker Nico Marley approached coach Curtis Johnson, congratulated him and shook his hand vigorously.
After two weeks of futility against Duke and Georgia Tech, Marley wanted everyone to know exactly how he felt about Johnson’s leadership and the direction of the program.
“Coach gets a lot of negative comments about him,” Marley said Wednesday. “He doesn’t say anything about it, but you hear it and you see it on Twitter. I was just happy for him because at the end of the day, those two losses were not really on him. It’s on us as players. We weren’t executing well enough.
“I just told him, that’s one out of 10. Let’s get these next nine (victories).”
Whether Tulane (1-2) comes even remotely close to matching Marley’s optimism remains to be seen, but one thing was clear before and after the Maine game. A 37-7 season-opening loss to Duke and a 65-10 flameout at Georgia Tech the following week did not cost Johnson the respect of his players.
They practiced hard in preparation for Maine and had intense workouts Tuesday and Wednesday during their open week before their American Athletic Conference opener against Central Florida on Oct. 3 at Yulman Stadium. Younger players took center stage while the starters mostly watched from the sideline, talking trash under a two-week-old coaching directive to add more competition to practice.
Freshman wide receiver Rickey Preston and senior tight end Sydie London heard catcalls when they missed opportunities for catches.
“I enjoy it,” Johnson said. “I can sit back and laugh about it a little bit when those guys are going at it.”
Marley seconded that notion.
“I definitely think it helps,” he said. “We’re bringing great excitement, and it shows.”
The atmosphere around practice lightened considerably with the win against Maine — more because of the way the Green Wave played rather than the score against an outmanned Football Bowl Subdivision opponent.
The defense blanked the Black Bears after giving up a touchdown on the opening drive, while a previously moribund offense gained huge chunks of yardage on the ground and in the air.
“We didn’t play great every snap, but we made big plays,” offensive coordinator Eric Price said. “Our goal going into the game was trying to get our guys to play fast in space. Once one kid made a play, it just caught on and then we got a second one and it was like, ‘OK, we’re good.’ ”
Sophomore defensive tackle Sean Wilson, who missed the Georgia Tech and Maine games with a sprained ankle, is on track to return against UCF.
He has not practiced this week, but he sprinted across the field several times Wednesday, moving well.
“I think he’s going to be able to play,” Johnson said. “That would be huge for us. We definitely need him.”
Wilson started the last seven games as a true freshman, finishing with 29 tackles. The player he supplanted, senior Corey Redwine, started in his absence against Georgia Tech and Maine and had two tackles in each game.
Johnson was less certain about the status of wide receiver Terren Encalade, who had four catches in the opener before hurting a shoulder at Georgia Tech. Johnson said Encalade would be evaluated by a doctor again on Thursday.
Resting to get ready
Quarterback Tanner Lee did not take a rep in practice Tuesday or Wednesday, but the move was strictly precautionary after he got banged up against Maine.
He will return to practice when Tulane begins normal game-week preparation for UCF on Sunday.
“We got blitzed a lot the first two games, so they (Maine) tried to put the pressure on us,” Lee said. “Sometimes they brought more than we had to protect, so I took a few hits, but I’m ready to go.”
Starting nickelback Jarrod Franklin and reserve linebacker Zach Harris also sat out practice.
Harris, who had a team-high seven tackles against Maine, experienced some swelling on his right knee, the same one that required surgery after a season-ending injury against Rutgers last year.
“Zach played outstanding,” Johnson said. “We thought he would help us a lot more, but he’s been in and out and hurt a little bit.”
Franklin had swelling in his surgically repaired knee, too, but Johnson said he expected him to return for Sunday’s practice.
Two players gone
Reserve defensive back Richard Carthon and offensive lineman Anthony Taylor have left the team to concentrate on other sports — Carthon for baseball and Taylor for track and field.
Carthon, a senior, was a gunner on special teams the past three years, making six tackles in each. He did not play in Tulane’s first three games this season, losing his spot on the coverage team to Richard Allen.
Tulane’s fall baseball practice began last week. Carthon started 50 games in 2015, hitting .272.
Taylor, a John Curtis graduate, arrived at Tulane as a track and field athlete in 2013 before being put on scholarship for football last season as promised. He redshirted in 2014 and was on the bottom of the depth chart at tackle this year.