Safety Brandon LeBeau does not like being reminded about the tackle he failed to make in Tulane’s season opener against Tulsa. If he keeps playing as well as he did against Connecticut last Saturday, he won’t have to worry about it any longer.
Six games into his senior year, LeBeau finally had a breakout performance, and the Green Wave (2-4, 1-1) American Athletic Conference hopes for more of the same as it travels to face Central Florida (3-2, 1-0) on Saturday in Orlando, Florida.
Playing nickelback in Tulane’s five-defensive back package, LeBeau made seven tackles —three higher than his previous personal best — and had three stops for losses after entering with zero for his career.
“LeBeau is just a physical specimen, man,” defensive end Royce LaFrance said. “You look at him and are just like, ‘God.’ Then you saw Saturday the guy is a freak. I love him on the field.”
That’s what coaches and teammates expected at the beginning of the year when LeBeau started at nickelback versus Tulsa. Instead, he stood and watched in the middle of the field as receiver Keevon Lucas caught a 24-yard pass right in front of him and turned it into an 84-yard touchdown with 37 seconds left in the first half. That play changed the momentum of a game Tulane led 21-7 and ultimately lost 38-31 in double overtime.
LeBeau lost his starting spot the following week, did not play at all against Southeastern Louisiana due to an ankle injury and was limited against Duke and Rutgers.
He was more like a locomotive against UConn. On consecutive plays in the first quarter, he raced through the line to level running back Arkeel Newsome for a 3-yard loss and avoided a block to bust up a quick screen two yards behind the line.
“We always felt that LeBeau is a physical player,” coach Curtis Johnson said. “He showed his physicality in that game. We had him in a down-safety role, and he played outstanding. He can really run. He reminds me of me 20 years ago.”
Johnson was joking with that last comparison, but LeBeau’s performance was no joke. He added his first career sack in the fourth quarter as Tulane shut out the Huskies for the final 53 minutes.
“It definitely was a good game to have,” LeBeau said. “It was a great confidence boost, not only for me but for the team. Mistakes will happen early, and you learn from them.”
The coaches face a tough decision on whether to start LeBeau versus spread-oriented UCF or go back to cornerback Taurean Nixon, a better cover guy, in the nickel. Inconsistent UCF sophomore quarterback Justin Holman threw 52 times for 326 yards in an Oct. 9, 31-24 overtime victory against BYU, but a week earlier he attempted just 18 passes, completing six, while the Knights ran 37 times in a 17-12 win at Houston.
The key factor may be LeBeau’s size (6-foot-0, 198). He weighs 15 pounds more than Nixon, and Tulane already will be at a disadvantage in that department.
“You just have to stop the run because they are going to be big and they are physical,” Johnson said. “They are going to be bigger than us and we’re going to be little kids. That’s how it’s going to look at the game, I can tell you that right now.”
Tulane is a nearly three-touchdown underdog against the defending American champions. Although UCF has played nowhere near as well as a year ago, when future No. 3 overall NFL draft pick Blake Bortles guided it to a 12-1 record and Fiesta Bowl upset of Baylor, the Wave has gone 18 games and more than 1,000 days without winning outside of Louisiana.
Duke and Rutgers, its last two opponents away from home, outscored Tulane 78-19.
“I’d like to play a team that we know we are going to beat on the road,” Johnson said. “Win a couple of those and you get some confidence going on the road. We haven’t had any of those. We haven’t been comfortable, but once they’ll get it, they’ll get it. We’ll get off the schneid in one of these games.”
LeBeau’s late emergence should help. He played quarterback as a senior at McMain High a few blocks from the Tulane campus. The Green Wave recruited him as a wide receiver, and he started four times there in his freshman year, catching 14 passes.
After he moved to defensive back as a sophomore, he needed a long time to pick up the aggressiveness he needed, finishing with fewer than 10 tackles as a sophomore and junior.
“At first it was a little different, but at the end of the day it’s still playing football,” he said. “You just have to play your game, and when you have the opportunity to make the play, you have to do it.”
With his talent, it’s better late than never.
“His body is awesome,” Johnson said. “I’m glad he’s doing what he’s doing now because you begin to wonder if the light is ever going to come on.”