One thing is certain as the Tulane football team prepares for its American Athletic Conference opener against Central Florida at Yulman Stadium.
The Green Wave (1-2) won’t beat the Knights (0-4) with wide receiver depth.
Coach Curtis Johnson said Wednesday that sophomore Terren Encalade might miss the rest of the season because of a slow-healing shoulder injury he suffered against Georgia Tech on Sept. 12. Encalade will not play Saturday, leaving Tulane with five available scholarship wideouts.
The entire list: starters Teddy Veal (12 catches, 165 yards) and Devon Breaux (eight catches, 179 yards), freshman Rickey Preston (two catches, 16 yards), former walk-on Larry Dace and freshman Andrew Hicks. Dace and Hicks have zero receptions.
Encalade started the first two games, catching four passes for 43 yards.
“I don’t see it (the shoulder) getting much better right now,” Johnson said. “He could be done. I’m not going to say it for sure, but he hasn’t improved enough. I don’t know what he’s going to do.”
In Encalade’s absence, quarterback Tanner Lee could lean even more on his running backs, who accounted for 10 of the Wave’s 18 catches and 168 of its 292 receiving yards in a 38-7 win against Maine on Sept. 19. Sherman Badie had a career-high 118 yards (on five catches) — the most yards for a Tulane receiver since Ryan Grant put up 187 yards against South Alabama on Sept. 7, 2013.
“Sherman is real good, and he’s hard to tackle one-on-one,” offensive coordinator Eric Price said. “We’re trying to figure out the plays he feels real comfortable at receiver, and he’s doing a good job at that.”
Fellow running back Dontrell Hilliard posted the Wave’s previous 100-yard receiving day before Badie with 107 against Houston last November. Hilliard’s nine catches rank third to Badie (11) and Veal (12) this season.
Another running back, Rob Kelley, is Tulane’s active career leader in touchdown catches with five, although four of them came in 2012.
Tight ends Charles Jones III and Trey Scott could be heavily involved, too. Jones III tied for the team lead with three touchdown receptions last season.
Scott, who predicted a 50-catch season in August but was limited to three in losses to Duke and Georgia Tech, is returning from a one-game suspension for an unspecified violation of team policy.
“I’m hungry for this game,” Scott said. “My breakout game would have been last game if I had played, so I am trying to transfer that into this game. I’m trying to get in that end zone this week, so I’m excited.”
Scott, Badie and Hilliard can split out wide, alleviating part of the numbers issue. Regardless, just about everyone in the limited rotation needs to be productive.
Veal was kicking himself after the Maine game for dropping what would have been a 72-yard touchdown, but he still finished with 94 yards on five catches. After leading the team with 40 catches as a true freshman, he has become Lee’s No. 1 option.
“He’s just another quarterback on the field,” Lee said. “I have a lot of trust out there in him. We have a lot of young guys out there playing — and running next to them, he can tell them what they need to do. It’s less off my shoulders when I have him out there because I know he’s going to be open.”
Tulane rushed for 205 yards against Maine, but more than two-thirds of that total (141) came on two long runs by Hilliard and Badie. The Wave knows it will be tough to rip off large chunks like that against UCF.
Balance and big plays in the passing game will be pivotal, with Lee front and center as he tries to spread the ball around as much as possible.
“He’s doing a great job,” Price said. “He’s taking care of the ball and understanding where it needs to be going. So far, so good.”
For the second straight Saturday, kickoff for Tulane’s game at Temple on Oct. 10 will be at 11 a.m. Central time. The game will be televised by either ESPNU or ESPNews. ... Defensive lineman Sean Wilson, returning from a sprained MCL that sidelined him for the past two games, said he felt 90-percent healthy after Wednesday’s practice. ... Johnson said running back Lazedrick Thompson (ankle sprain) did more in Wednesday’s practice than Tuesday. His status for the UCF game remains questionable.