Tulane debuted its new-look offense on Saturday morning at Yulman Stadium, concentrating heavily on the running backs and tight ends.
Look no further than the first series of the Green Wave’s annual spring game for proof.
Quarterback Tanner Lee completed a pass to running back Sherman Badie on the first play. Tight end Tre Scott then made a sliding catch for a 22-yard gain after getting open down the middle of the field.
Receptions by running backs Lazedrick Thompson and Dontrell Hilliard moved the ball inside the 15 before Badie broke a tackle from linebacker Nico Marley on a 9-yard gain to the 4.
Two plays later, Lee hit tight end Sydie London on a quick slant for a touchdown.
The drive chart: nine plays, 65 yards and a running back or tight end touching the ball on every down.
“They all made good plays around (Lee),” coach Curtis Johnson said. “If he just distributes the ball around him and does it in an efficient manner, we’ll win a lot of games. This looks like a much better team than I’ve seen here ever.”
The Wave won only three times last year, a significant drop from its seven-win 2013 season that ended with an appearance in the New Orleans Bowl. A tougher nonleague schedule, the move from Conference USA to the American Athletic Conference and the loss of several key seniors all played a role in the disappointing 3-9 record.
The offense bore the brunt of the blame. Tulane finished fifth-to-last in the FBS in scoring (16.0 points per game) and 107th out of 125 teams in yards, failing to surpass 14 points in eight of its last nine games.
After completing three weeks of spring practice, Lee, a redshirt sophomore, said he expects much bigger numbers in his second year as a starter.
“We’re night and day from this time last year,” he said. “We’re just so much more comfortable and able to do more things, so it’s more fun. We’re all ready to just win. After those losses, everyone was kind of silent in the locker room and didn’t want to talk to anybody.”
Lee, who went 5 for 5 on the touchdown drive, did not have much success the rest of the way, finishing 10 of 20 for 41 yards. Wide receiver Teddy Veal dropped what would have been a 29-yard touchdown pass in the corner of the end zone after beating cornerback Parry Nickerson on a fade route.
Lee also threw an interception when cornerback Richard Allen outjumped receiver Devon Breaux on a fade from the 2-yard line.
“That was a jump ball with a mismatch, and the guy (Breaux) has to go get it,” Johnson said. “Other than that, I thought (Lee) played very, very well. There weren’t any balls on the ground. It was a good day for him.”
Josh Rounds led the running backs with 12 yards on 48 carries.
Badie had 26 yards on six attempts, Thompson rushed four times for 22 yards and Hilliard picked up 21 yards on four carries.
The scrimmage featured four series that started at the offense’ s 35, four that started at the defense’s 40 and several from the defense’s 25.
Tight ends were responsible for two of the three longest gains of the day. In addition to Scott’s early catch, redshirt freshman Kendall Ardoin gained 32 yards after skirting the sideline on a reception from redshirt freshman quarterback Glen Cuillette.
“It was a heavy tight end day, and that’s what we have to do,” Johnson said. “We like the tight ends. They are very good players. They catch the ball and block and are really doing well. Kendall is one of the guys that opened my eyes this spring.”
Backup quarterback Devin Powell struggled early, underthrowing a pass that cornerback Donnie Lewis intercepted easily, before guiding a run-centered drive that ended in a 30-yard field goal by Trevor Simms. Powell finished 6 of 11 for 50 yards with no touchdowns.
Veal atoned for his drop with the highlight of the day for the offense, taking a pitch from Lee on an end around, slipping a tackle from safety Darion Monroe and racing for a 25-yard touchdown on the first play of a red zone series.
“I don’t think I’m going to be able to sleep after that dropped pass,” Veal said. “I’m learning to go play by play and let go of the mistakes and play faster to make up for the mistakes. I just used my speed on the touchdown.”
Monroe was livid at himself for missing Veal on what he thought was a good day overall for the defense, which has to replace leading tackler Sam Scofield and cornerback Lorenzo Doss, who declared for the NFL draft as a junior.
Just as important, Monroe said, was the way Lee directed the offense in the scrimmage and the proceeding practices. Lee began 2014 with a 300-yard passing day against Tulsa, exhibiting tremendous arm strength, but his numbers became progressively worse during the season.
“You will see the old Tanner,” Monroe said. “You will see the (Jesuit) high school Tanner. He’s a great kid, he’s listening to the coaches and he’s always watching extra film.”