Early in Tulane’s spring game, quarterback Justin McMillan hit running back Amare Jones on a drag route, and Jones raced into the end zone for an 18-yard touchdown.
On the next series, Keon Howard lofted a floater to running back Stephon Huderson, who cut inside of safety Sean Harper on his way to a 36-yard touchdown.
Add the two catches Ygenio Booker had for 27 yards, and the Green Wave running backs excelled in the passing game on Saturday morning at Yulman Stadium, highlighting a typically sloppy scrimmage that featured big and bad plays on both sides of the ball.
The 15-minute first quarter had nearly 50 snaps. The 10-minute second quarter, with walk-on quarterbacks Josh Holl and P.J. Hurst playing along with Christian Daniels, who is recovering from a knee injury, went much faster.
“To have those kind of electrifying players on the field, it makes my job easy,” McMillan said. “We showed how much versatility we have. The first person that caught my eye when I got here was Amare. There’s nothing he can’t do. He’s going to be a playmaker for us this year.”
New coordinator Will Hall has diversified what used to be a predictable offense as Tulane prepares to build on a bowl-winning, 7-6 season and make a strong run at the American Athletic Conference championship game. He remains committed to the same run-first approach that coach Willie Fritz has espoused for his entire career, but he wants to incorporate all of his playmakers into the scheme.
The 91 combined yards receiving for Jones, Huderson and Booker and Cameron Carroll in the spring game was not that far below the total of 125 yards receiving Tulane’s running backs compiled in 13 games last season.
“We have to take what (defenses) give us,” Hall said. “We want to be able to stretch the field horizontally and vertically, and we want to be able to use all five of our skill positions.”
With the defensive front controlling the line of scrimmage, the backs struggled to find holes, picking up 76 yards rushing on 24 carries. Carroll, in particular, had no room to run, managing 14 yards on eight carries.
The offense’s success came in the air and with Howard’s feet. Playing with the second-team offense against the second-team defense, Howard threw an interception on his first play, when nickelback Will Harper jumped a short out route, but he rebounded to go 6 of 9 for 88 yards with a passing touchdown. He also had a nifty 34-yard touchdown run to cap off a nine-play, 70-yard drive, scrambling up the middle, turning right and beating defenders to the pylon.
Operating with the first-team offense against the first-team defense, McMillan went 3 of 8 for 78 and two touchdowns. He also was part of the play of the day, making a perfect throw to leaping wideout Darnell Mooney for 50 yards on a streak down the sideline. That gain set up a 10-yard scoring toss to Oklahoma State transfer receiver Jalen McCleskey on a slant in the back of the end zone.
“I felt comfortable,” McMillan said. “Me and Darnell started clicking last year, and just to have Jalen here and Amare, literally a room full of receivers I can trust, it’s going to be great. I feel good going into next year.”
So does the defense, which had two turnovers on the second and third plays of the scrimmage. Walk-on linebacker Sam Bruchaus, playing because starters Lawrence Graham and Marvin Moody were held out with minor injuries, picked up a Jones fumble and returned it for a touchdown.
Will Harper’s interception came on the next snap.
“Good thing for him,” Howard said. “At the end of the day we’re all teammates. It stunk at the time, but the defense making plays like that makes everything better.”
The defense racked up four sacks and scored twice, with tackle DeAndre Williams and end Patrick Johnson getting to McMillan, Carlos Hatcher running around walk-on offensive tackle Timothy Shafter to reach Howard and nickelback Larry Bryant finding Daniels.
The second touchdown was the product of a high snap that Holl could not corral. Nickelback Tirise Barge picked it up on one hop and raced 70 yards to the end zone.
“We played great,” Johnson said. “Our energy was high. We learned a lot, and the younger guys stepped up to the plate today. The offense threw a few things at us that we hadn’t seen, but they are getting better, so it’s pushing us to learn. That’s what it’s all about.”
Howard wore a full-contact jersey, saying he wanted to get back in the flow after sitting out a transfer year. … Before the scrimmage, the Wave went 1 of 4 on field goals. Merek Glover, 10 for 13 last year with a long of 40 yards, had the distance on a 50-yard attempt but was wide right. He then hooked a 40-yarder. Sterling Stockwell connected from 39 yards and hit the right upright on a 49-yarder. … Punter Ryan Wright boomed a 62-yarder that traveled 59 yards in the air before rolling into the end zone during the scrimmage. … The season opener against Florida International is 130 days away.