The Tulane football team will be without two potential defensive starters all year.
At the end of the first preseason practice Wednesday, coach Curtis Johnson revealed he was redshirting junior safety Leonard Davis and junior linebacker Edward Williams because they were not on course to graduate.
“I don’t know about the school, but for me if these guys are not going to graduate, they are not going to play,” Johnson said. “I’ve made that statement and I’m sticking with it.”
Davis, a backup last season, worked with the first team at strong safety this past spring. Williams, a highly touted recruit out of Warren Easton in 2013, started eight games at middle linebacker last year, finishing eighth on the team with 38 tackles.
In Davis’ absence, redshirt sophomore Tristan Cooper of University Lab in Baton Rouge worked with the starting unit Wednesday. He had two tackles while playing sparingly last season.
Another reserve, sophomore Carlton Williams, has been kicked off the team for unspecified disciplinary reasons, leaving the position light on experience. Johnson said true freshmen Malik Eugene, Roderic Teamer and Jeremie Francis would challenge Cooper in the preseason.
“We are not a redshirt program,” Johnson said. “When we recruit guys, we recruit them to come in and play, and that’s what we’re going to do. Edward and Leonard played as freshmen.”
Williams’s troubles became apparent in the spring, when he ended up off the two-deep depth chart as questions about his academic progress arose. Junior Eric Thomas, who started three games in 2014 and made 30 tackles, worked with the first team Wednesday.
Still, linebacker Nico Marley played down any concern about the effect of their loss. Tulane returns several experienced players on defense, including three-year starting safety Darion Monroe and Marley, who has started every game through two years.
“The freshmen were flying around today, and Cooper was making plays out there,” Marley said. “As much as we miss those guys, we are still on cue.”
Davis and Williams dressed out Wednesday, and Johnson said they would be part of the scout team defense this fall. Their next game, though, won’t come before 2016.
“One thing I told those kids’ parents is they are going to graduate,” Johnson said. “I have to have some teeth in what I’m saying.”
The news was not all negative. Tulane welcomed back one player who missed spring practice — senior defensive end Royce LaFrance — and another who has not been on the team since the fall of 2013 — running back Rob Kelley.
LaFrance, who led the Wave with six sacks last season and had 6.5 sacks as a sophomore, was held out in the spring because of similar classroom issues to Davis and Williams.
“I’ve punished him enough,” Johnson said. “When you keep a guy out from doing something you love, he’s a prime example of (the positive benefits of punishment). All of a sudden he’s on graduation track and doing what we need him to do.”
Kelley, a senior who led the team in rushing in 2012 and finished second in 2013, remained enrolled in school despite his long absence for academic issues. Johnson said this summer Kelley would rejoin the Wave and add to its crowded depth chart at running back.
Three members of Tulane’s 17-player signing class were not on campus Wednesday — wide receiver Darius Williams of McDonogh 35, running back Nigel Anderson of East St. John and defensive back Doug Henry of Westgate. All of them have academic enrollment issues.
Johnson said he expected good news down the road for Williams and Anderson but did not mention Henry.
The Wave practiced for two hours and 45 minutes in the intense afternoon heat at Yulman Stadium, and Johnson said he liked what he saw until guys got tired near the end. The rest of the team’s solo workouts in the preseason will be in the morning, but this was one was later because Johnson and four of his players participated in the American Athletic Conference media day in Newport, Rhode Island, on Tuesday. … Quarterback Devin Powell and offensive guard Chris Taylor missed the opening practice because they were finishing summer school. Powell arrived near the end but was told to leave because he was not in uniform.