Tulane’s shaky place-kicking battle was settled by default.
Sophomore Andrew DiRocco will be the Green Wave’s field-goal kicker against Duke on Thursday in part because walk-on freshman Steven Logan pulled a muscle in practice Sunday night. Coach Curtis Johnson had indicated that workout would determine the winner, but Logan’s injury settled it beforehand.
“Logan got hurt, and he couldn’t kick at all,” Johnson said during the American Athletic Conference coaches’ teleconference Monday. “I am agreeing with (offensive coordinator) Eric Price that (the kicking depth chart) is erasable. But the first game, it will definitely be DiRocco.”
The Wave will need better kicking in Thursday’s opener at Yulman Stadium than last year’s first game at Tulsa, when DiRocco missed a 21-yard field goal with 1:46 left in a tie game. Although he rebounded to make a 30-yarder in the first overtime, Tulane lost 38-31 in double overtime, setting the tone for a rough year of kicking.
DiRocco, from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, connected on eight of 15 field goals and missed four of his first five attempts — all from 36 yards or shorter. He also missed two extra points, creating a stark contrast to his predecessor, 2012 Lou Groza Award winner Cairo Santos.
Despite closing the year by hitting five of his last seven field goals, DiRocco faced a four-way competition to retain his job in preseason drills, competing against senior kickoff specialist Trevor Simms, freshman Zach Block and, eventually, Logan, who earned a promotion to the main kicking derby a week into camp.
Johnson declared Simms the early front-runner because of his strong leg, but his inability to kick the ball straight and Block’s inconsistency turned the competition into a two-way race between DiRocco and Simms.
Neither of them was reliable or showed much range outside 40 yards, but DiRocco went 4-for-4 in a field-goal drill before Tulane’s final scrimmage Aug. 22. He also outkicked Logan on Saturday night in practice, when Logan, whose forte had been accuracy from inside 40 yards, missed all but one of his attempts.
The pressure will be on DiRocco the first time he lines up for a field goal against Duke. The concern: If he could not consistently make kicks on the practice field with no live rush, what will he do in a game?
“The team knows that’s one of the things we definitely need to improve on as the season goes,” Johnson said. “I tell them we have to push harder at some other stuff. We have to score more touchdowns, and we better stop some people more. We understand it’s a team, and if one side is lacking a little bit, we just have to pick it up on the other side.”
Kicking issues helped Tulane’s game at Duke last year get out of hand. The Wave lost 47-13 after the Blue Devils got a safety off a high punt snap, scored a touchdown off another botched punt, and benefitted from two failed fourth-down conversions when Johnson did not trust DiRocco enough to try 38- and 41-yard field goals.
When Tulane scored a touchdown to cut the deficit to 26-13 midway through the third quarter, DiRocco was penalized for a false start on an extra point, then missed the longer try.
If DiRocco struggles against Duke, Johnson likely will not hesitate to use Simms, the Wave’s long-range kicker. After spraying ball left and right for most of the preseason, he went 4-for-5 on Aug. 28 and finished the drill by nailing a 52-yarder.
“Simms kicked really well last night, too,” Johnson said. “He was very accurate.”
Tulane released its two-deep depth chart for the Duke game Monday, and there were few surprises. Kicker was the only wide-open competition by the end of preseason camp. Senior starting safety Darion Monroe, who did not return a punt in 2014, was listed ahead of Teddy Veal as the punt returner. Veal muffed two punts last season, and Johnson said last week he knew Monroe would catch the ball every time. … Tulane is healthy entering its opener. Logan and backup right offensive tackle Kenneth Santa Marina (sprained ankle) are the only two unavailable players who would have been on the depth chart. … The Wave did not practice Monday after working out Friday, Saturday and Sunday.