Before Tulane kicks off the second half of its football season against Central Florida at 11 a.m. Saturday, The Advocate took the opportunity to hand out some grades to evaluate the performance of the Green Wave (2-4, 1-1 American) through six games.
Youth and injuries have given this group a bit of leeway. Redshirt freshman starter Tanner Lee showed plenty of potential in throwing for 914 yards in less than five games, but his nine interceptions and 13 sacks allowed are signs of inexperience.
Throwing into the teeth of a zone defense or holding the ball too long is a correctable mistake. Being able to toss a 40-yard post route is a skill that doesn’t diminish.
Lee is the future of the position at Tulane and, although he has taken lumps, he has proved himself to be an above-average quarterback having a below-average season because of correctable mistakes.
Running backs: A-
It’s easily the offense’s showcase position, led by the bursts of Sherman Badie. The redshirt freshman has three carries of more than 70 yards, boosting his average to 7.33 yards per carry, which ranks No. 9 nationally. The speedy John Curtis product is a terror in the open field and gives Tulane the threat of scoring on any down.
Badie is complemented perfectly by the bruising Lazedrick Thompson, who churned his way to 298 yards on 65 attempts, breaking countless tackles on the way to becoming a reliable option in short-yardage situations.
Wide receivers: C+
This grade is based as much on what hasn’t been seen than on what has. Outside of the season-opening 38-31 loss to Tulsa, it’s not as if Tulane’s receivers have been dropping passes or making costly mistakes. Instead, they’ve been kept quiet.
Leading receiver Justyn Shackleford made 13 of his 22 catches in the first two games, a signal of Tulane’s diminished passing presence. Freshman Teddy Veal and senior Xavier Rush have made some explosive plays, keeping this group above criticism but certainly not worthy of high praise.
Offensive line: C-
This grade slips below average because the line’s negative plays have outweighed the positives. A group featuring four returning starters (though only two upperclassmen) has provided Tulane with its best run blocking in recent memory but has also been repeatedly flagged with costly penalties.
False starts and holding flags have rained down on the offensive line, putting Tulane in poor down-and-distance scenarios that it hasn’t been able to overcome. If those are cleaned up, this group could be one of Tulane’s best in the second half.
Defensive line: C-
Tulane’s biggest dropoff from 2013 to 2014 is in the front four, where the Wave really misses defensive tackles Julius Warmsley and the space-eating Chris Davenport.
Talented defensive end Royce LaFrance was suspended for the first half of the opener and did not play well upon his return, finally rounding into form Saturday against UConn with two sacks and a tackle for a safety. He had no sacks in the first five games.
Sophomore Tanzel Smart is a playmaker, but the Wave has gotten little out of the other tackle spot, and depth is an issue across the line.
Aside from linebacker Nico Marley, who played big against Georgia Tech and Southeastern Louisiana, the contributions have been minimal here.
Marley’s 42 tackles rank second on the team, but no other linebacker is in the top seven, which is unusual. The Wave really misses middle linebacker Zach Davis, too. He made 57 tackles a year ago and filled gaps correctly, while his youthful replacements have been more miss than hit.
Eric Thomas (16 tackles) is the most productive, while potential-laden Edward Williams had his first good game against UConn. The base defense is a nickel, so the third linebackers don’t get on the field often.
These guys, who entered the year with huge accolades, are better than they have performed. Sam Scofield, a sure tackler, leads the team with 46 stops. Darion Monroe forced a fumble and recovered two vs. UConn.
Cornerback Lorenzo Doss has picked off passes in the past two games, giving him a career-best 13 among active college players. Gifted redshirt freshman Parry Nickerson also has two interceptions.
Yet the Wave has made several critical mistakes, including a killer at the end of the first half at Tulsa that turned into an 84-yard touchdown. Rutgers torched the DBs for 291 yards and four TDs on only 14 completions.
With the talent, smarts and experience on hand, look for the secondary to play much better the rest of the way.
Special teams: F
Nothing went right in the first five games.
Replacing former Lou Groza Award winner Cairo Santos, freshman Andrew DiRocco missed two extra points and four of his first five field goals, including a 21-yarder that would have given the Wave a late three-point lead at Tulsa.
He was not the only problem. Long snapper Mike Lizanich hurt a hamstring in warmups for Duke, and his replacement, Matt Marfisi, airmailed one punt snap for a safety and another one that turned into a Blue Devils touchdown. Georgia Tech blocked a punt. Veal muffed a critical punt against Duke.
Tulane ranks last in the NCAA in kickoff returns (15.9-yard average) and 106th in punt returns. It’s hard to win that way, but DiRocco and the rest of the unit were much better against UConn, providing a glimmer of hope.
A 2-4 record speaks for itself, but the Green Wave’s schedule also should be taken into account. Three of Tulane’s nonconference foes (Rutgers, Duke, Georgia Tech) are a combined 15-3 while playing in “Power Five” conferences. Still, the loss to 1-5 Tulsa stands out as a significant blunder, and the repeated penalties smack of an undisciplined team — even if it can be traced to a youthful depth chart.
Entering the season without an answer at kicker is more of a program issue than a coaching one, but so is Tulane’s unquestionably upgraded roster from Johnson’s 2012 arrival. But his team hasn’t shown enough consistency through six weeks to be considered above average.
The talent is in place to turn a mediocre start into a flourishing finish.