The fact that four-year starter Orleans Darkwa is no longer in the picture is on the minds of all the Tulane running backs that both played behind him and showed up as he departed.
“With Orleans out, it’s anyone’s job, so we’re all out competing and trying to perform to the best of our abilities,” junior running back Josh Rounds said following Tulane’s first intrasquad scrimmage of fall camp Saturday.
And that’s exactly what many of them did Saturday. While freshman quarterback Tanner Lee established command of his position, Rounds and the rest of his running backs, on the other hand, showed how difficult it might be to name a starter.
On 20 attempts, the four main contenders rushed for 145 yards, for an average of 7.3 yards per carry against what was a better-than-solid defense last year. That’s not even counting expected starter Sherman Badie, who came out after a single carry, and sophomore Lazedrick Thompson.
“It’s very open,” coach Curtis Johnson said of the backfield competition. “Like I always say, I think you have to handle running back by committee. I thought these guys played really, really well. The only thing we just have to work on is some protection. … Sherman didn’t get much action, neither did Lazedrick. We really didn’t want to see those guys. They’re a little banged up and (we) didn’t want to force them in the action.”
Senior Dante Butler was the first back Johnson brought up by name when discussing the group’s production during the scrimmage. On the first offensive drive, after Butler displayed good timing on a screen with Lee for 7 yards, he broke an 18-yard run between the tackles to put the offense in scoring position. Later on in the scrimmage, with the offense starting from the defense’s 40, Butler went out on a wheel route, deftly pushed past a jamming defender, and caught Lee’s ball wide open and trotted in the end zone.
Not only that, but he excelled at Johnson’s only gripe with the group.
“I was very impressed with Dante,” Johnson said. “The one thing that he is, he’s the older guy back there and he picked up all the protections. He played really, really well.”
The other standout was true freshman Dontrell Hilliard, who picked up where Butler left off on that first drive and broke several tackles on the left side for 24 yards to score the offense’s first touchdown of the day. Hilliard’s four attempts were one less than Butler’s, but he outrushed him 34 yards to 23 and seemed to take the most snaps with the starters.
“The job is really not taken right now, so everybody’s coming out to play,” Hilliard said. “They’ve welcomed me with open arms; we’re just fighting for position right now.”
Rounds averaged a first down a carry playing mostly with the second unit, going for 48 yards on four attempts with a touchdown.
“I haven’t been in the end zone since my freshman year in a scrimmage, so I’m just trying to get back, make some plays and show improvement,” Rounds said.
And ending the scrimmage appropriately, second-year walk-on Marshall Wadleigh broke a 29-yarder, the longest of any back, to score on the last play before the final whistle.
Aside from Badie and Thompson, there were several other players high up on the depth chart that didn’t see the field much Saturday.
A day before, Johnson said he would keep many of his starters out to get a look at his backups, and he did. Thorpe Award candidate Lorenzo Doss, linebacker Nico Marley, safety Darion Monroe, and wide receivers Justyn Shackleford and Xavier Rush all saw little to no action.
“There’s a lot of guys we really didn’t need to see in this scrimmage,” Johnson said. “This is a scrimmage to tell us who we’re going to play and who we’re not going to play.”
‘Didn’t feel like Week 1’
With just a week of practice in the books and what looks to be a tough 2014 campaign creeping up in the not-so-distant future, there’s a lot Johnson likes about his team.
“I like the hustle. I like the athleticism. I like the execution,” Johnson said. “For a first scrimmage, we’ve only been in practice for five days and the execution looks pretty good.”
Lee, who after the snaps and compliments his coach gave him is apparently the team’s leader early on in his career, seems comfortable already.
“I’ll tell you what, it didn’t feel like the first week,” Lee said. “Things are really running smoothly. We’re not having too many hiccups with guys not knowing their assignments. If we keep going at this pace and keep on repping these plays like we’re doing, it’s really going to be second nature come Tulsa.”
Three observations of note from Saturday’s practice:
1, Tulane will make full use of sophomore wide receiver Devon Breaux’s leaping ability. Breaux, who qualified for NCAA Regionals in the long jump as a freshman and finished third in the high jump at the 2013 Conference USA outdoor championships, went in the air for two difficult touchdown catches Saturday. Breaux had only two scoring receptions last season, but quarterback Tanner Lee says he trusts him as much as any receiver on the team.
2, The Green Wave ran the ball surprisingly well, picking up 173 yards on 24 carries with three backs having gains of 24 or more yards in a tight competition to replace four-year starter Orleans Darkwa. The question is whether that bodes well for an offensive line that struggled in run blocking in the past or poorly for a defense that lost run-stopping tackles Chris Davenport and Julius Warmsley.
3, Sophomore cornerback Richard Allen continued to have a strong camp while starters Lorenzo Doss and Taurean Nixon rested minor injuries. Allen led the defense with eight tackles and a sack. Allen, a member of the National Honor Society who is majoring in cell and molecular biology, appears ready to achieve on the field, too.