Robert Kelley, Dante Bulter won’t participate in Tulane’s spring football practices _lowres

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Tulane running back Dante Butler scampers for yardage as UL-Lafayette linebacker Justin Anderson (34) and linebacker Trae Johnson chase during the first half of the New Orleans Bowl in December.

Tulane running backs Dante Butler and Robert Kelley will be unavailable for spring practice, an athletic department spokesman confirmed to The Advocate on Thursday.

Tulane declined to state the reason for their absence, citing privacy policies. It is still unknown whether either will return for the 2014 season, but both are still enrolled at the university, according to the student directory.

Without Kelley and Butler, depth in the Green Wave’s backfield is dramatically altered when spring practice opens at 8 a.m. Friday in the New Orleans Saints indoor facility. It’s particularly challenging for coach Curtis Johnson and his staff, because Tulane needs to replace recently graduated standout Orleans Darkwa, who spent the past four seasons atop the running back depth chart.

Kelley was likely Darkwa’s replacement, thanks to gaining 420 rushing yards on 98 attempts as a sophomore last season. However, the former O. Perry Walker product will miss his second consecutive spring practice, potentially opening the position battle wider than expected.

That competition will not include Butler, who served as Tulane’s primary fullback last season. The rising senior gained 146 yards on just 24 carries last season, including a 54-yard pickup in the Green Wave’s 45-3 victory over UTEP on Nov. 23.

Only three scholarship running backs are available on the Green Wave roster for spring practice: redshirt sophomore Lazedrick Thompson (recovering from a season-ending knee injury), junior Josh Rounds and redshirt freshman Sherman Badie. The trio has combined for 261 yards on 88 carries in their college careers.