After nearly a two-year absence, running back Robert Kelley could return to the Tulane football team this fall, lending more depth to one of the deepest positions on the roster.
Kelley, a fifth-year senior who last played for the Green Wave in 2013, remained in school despite being academically ineligible to practice in the spring of 2014 and not being on the team last fall or this past spring.
“I really expect him to be back,” Tulane coach Curtis Johnson said with the start of preseason drills less than two months away. “He’s made his progress. He’s doing well. He’s working out with our guys. He will give us a boost with his leadership. He can help us.”
Kelley, who attended O. Perry Walker High, was Tulane’s leading rusher in 2012 and second-leading rusher in 2011 and 2013, gaining 1,038 yards on 253 carries (a 4.1-yard average) with five touchdowns over those three years. He also caught 80 passes for 694 yards and five scores.
He would join a crowded backfield. Rising redshirt sophomore Sherman Badie, redshirt junior Lazedrick Thompson and sophomore Dontrell Hilliard shared the load last season, with Badie rushing for 688 yards, Thompson 533 and Hilliard 452.
Senior Josh Rounds, who redshirted last fall, also played a major role in the spring.
“I love those backs, and Rounds had the best spring of them all,” Johnson said. “If those guys can be healthy, we’ve got really four tremendous players.”
Two running backs signed with Tulane in February: Nigel Anderson of East St. John and Devin Glenn of Warren Easton.
Kelley, listed at 220 pounds in 2013, could play fullback; Dante Butler graduated after starting six games there and rushing for 171 yards while making 19 receptions last season. Tulane’s only returning scholarship fullback is junior Sergio Medina, a converted linebacker who never touched the ball last fall.
The Wave averaged 145.5 rushing yards in 2014, opening with 254 on the ground against Tulsa and gaining 231 against Duke.
“The one thing we proved we could do in a new league (the American Athletic Conference) that was very physical was we definitely could run the football,” Johnson said. “If you watch what we did against Duke, Georgia Tech and some other teams, we can do it.”
As for the receivers ...
Tulane is loaded at running back, but it’s thin at receiver.
Johnson said Donaldsonville product Leondre James would miss the season for unspecified reasons after catching 15 passes and returning kickoffs as a freshman. With James unavailable, Tulane had only three scholarship wideouts in spring practice: sophomores Teddy Veal and Terren Encalade and junior Devon Breaux.
Though concerned, Johnson viewed the depth as decent. He cited the improvement of Breaux, who caught just seven passes after beginning 2014 as a starter, and the arrival of three freshman receivers.
Darius Williams of McDonogh 35 and Andrew Hicks of Belle Chasse signed in February. The Wave added Hahnville’s Rickey Preston, a three-star recruit according to 247Sports, in May as a late academic qualifier.
Breaux last week became the first Tulane track athlete to reach the NCAA championships since 2001, placing 19th in the long jump after winning the event at the AAC meet.
“We’re counting on him,” Johnson said. “He’s really focusing in. His main thing is between the ears, just concentrating and catching it. That track championship has really helped his confidence.”
Breaux is Tulane’s only scholarship upperclassman at the position. Johnson noted the emergence of walk-on senior Larry Dace, a St. Augustine product, but just about everyone else the Wave will use at wideout is a freshman or a sophomore.
“We just can’t have any injuries,” Johnson said. “We are going with different personnel groups, using Sherman and Dontrell in some stuff (as receivers). We’ll be fine.”
Johnson confirmed the return of senior defensive end Royce LaFrance, whom he held out of spring practice for unspecified issues.
LaFrance led the Wave with six sacks last season. Sophomore Ade Aruna registered the only other sack among returning ends. Still, Johnson is looking for a more consistent season from LaFrance, who was up and down after being a first-team preseason All-AAC pick by Phil Steele.
“It starts with his conditioning,” Johnson said. “He needs to definitely be in much better shape, and I think he will be, and he just needs to learn the game more and not get into the mentality of, ‘I gotta make a play.’ If he just does what he’s supposed to do, he’s going to be a tremendous player.”
Johnson said the first day of preseason practice would be Wednesday, Aug. 5 — four weeks before the Sept. 3 season opener against Georgia Tech at Yulman Stadium. … Johnson said two more players were on the edge academically — one on offense and one on defense — and needed to have a good summer to remain eligible. “We’ve (had players in academic limbo) before,” he said, “and we’ve made it every time.”