Aside from sensational linebacker Nico Marley, freshmen generally took a backseat in Tulane’s drive to a bowl game last year. This season, they could be driving the car as the Green Wave tries to back up that breakthrough.
Consider the lineup for Thursday’s season opener at Tulsa. Redshirt freshman quarterback Tanner Lee will direct the offense. Redshirt freshman Sherman Badie is the front-runner to start at running back.
True freshmen Teddy Veal, Terren Encalade and Leondre James are in the rotation at wide receiver. The starting tight end likely will be another true freshman, Charles Jones III.
Redshirt freshman cornerback Parry Nickerson made his case for major playing time in a deep secondary almost immediately after returning from knee surgery a week into fall camp. True freshman Rae Juan Marbley is part of a too-close-to-call, three-man battle to start at middle linebacker. True freshman defensive end Daren Williams might start against Tulsa while Royce LaFrance sits out the first half with a suspension.
The freshmen’s ascension is not out of necessity. They simply outplayed many of the upperclassmen in front of them during fall camp.
“The competitiveness of the camp was outstanding,” coach Curtis Johnson said. “I don’t think in years past we’ve gotten that from the young kids who were coming in. We are playing eight or nine freshman in this game just because they came in, they picked it up, and they’ve been doing great.”
The list was much smaller a year ago. Other than Marley, the Conference USA co-freshman of the year, only a handful of freshmen made any impact.
The only redshirt freshman with significant playing time was quarterback Devin Powell, who started twice for an injured Nick Montana and came off the bench for him a few times late in the season.
Of the true freshmen, Jarrod Franklin started twice at strongside linebacker and had 24 tackles. Chris Taylor started four of the final five games at right offensive guard. Tanzel Smart was part of the rotation at defensive tackles, finishing with 14 stops.
The rest of the freshmen played sparingly or were redshirted.
This time, Johnson expects nine true freshmen to play against Tulsa. At least six redshirt freshmen, including defensive linemen Ade Aruna, Quinlan Carroll and Eldrick Washington, should get on the field, too.
“We have really good young kids in this program,” Johnson said. “Our coaches have done an outstanding job recruiting, especially local players. The ones we got, some of those names I had never heard of until we signed them, and these guys are really good players.”
The youth movement started when Johnson named Lee his starting quarterback ahead of Powell and Montana two weeks into training camp. Lee did not play a down last year, but he might play every offensive down this season if he stays healthy.
“I think it was easier on the team because now they know who their guy is,” Lee said.
“Now we can really work on formulating chemistry, and I can make sure that I am always going with the 1s, so if we make mistakes I will get 10 more reps of the same play to make it better.”
A preseason ankle injury ended Badie’s chance to play as a true freshman. By the time he returned, he was too far behind veteran backs like Orleans Darkwa, so he watched and waited.
His next carry will be his first since alma mater John Curtis High won the 2012 Class 2A state championship game in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
“The thing about Sherman is he played in a system in high school (at John Curtis) that was really demanding,” Johnson said. “It was very disciplined, and the discipline kids are the ones who excel in this offense just because offensively we’re really complicated for a college team.”
Veal, a West Jefferson High product who participated in spring drills but spent the summer in limbo before sexual assault charges were dropped, has proven to be just as disciplined. He not only provides the speed Tulane has lacked at wide receiver for years. He works at his craft.
“He is a football junkie,” Johnson said. “I was leaving here one night at like 10:30 or 11, and he was leaving with me. I was like what are you doing? He said, ‘Well, I’m watching film.’ He is that kind of kid.”
Marbley, from Destrehan, spent much of fall camp working with the first-team defense.
“I talked to Nico and a couple of the other guys during the summer and started looking at some of the stuff that the coaches were going to throw at us, and I was like, ‘wow,’” Marbley said. “But I did the main things that got me here: I hustled, I played fast, and I played physical. I take coaching real well and do everything they say.”
Williams, who played at East St. John High, put himself in position to take advantage of LaFrance’s suspension with an excellent camp.
“Having a chance to start is amazing,” he said. “I feel like I have a good motor. I hustle to the ball every play and never take reps off.”