Tulane looks to new faces to carry load

A wry smile creeps across the face of Tulane wide receiver Justyn Shackleford when he’s asked about unveiling the 2014 version of the Green Wave offense.

A year after Tulane’s defense carried the program to its first winning season since 2002, an offense loaded with new faces is eager to prove it’s capable of carrying the load in 2014. A pair of redshirt freshmen will start in the backfield – quarterback Tanner Lee and running back Sherman Badie – and for the first time in coach Curtis Johnson’s three-year regime, experience is abundant across the offensive line.

It’s a combination Tulane believes can lead to a rapid scoring turnaround, pushing the program away from the one-dimensional status it carried a year ago. As a more dynamic team, its potential to earn consecutive bowl bids for the first time since 1980, despite facing a more challenging schedule, is far greater.

The Green Wave’s revamped attack makes its public introduction Thursday at 7 p.m. when Tulane travels to Tulsa, meeting the Golden Hurricane in both schools’ inaugural American Athletic Conference game.

The last time Tulane’s offense was on display, it scuffled before finishing as the No. 115-ranked unit in the country, averaging just 312 yards per game despite productive weapons like fifth-round NFL draft pick Ryan Grant and running back Orleans Darkwa. The sluggish production led to a season chocked full of defensive slugfests, including a 14-7 victory over Tulsa, featuring six combined turnovers and less than 650 combined yards.

It typified the way Tulane was forced to win games in 2013, by grinding down the pace of play, shutting down opposing offenses and making the most of forced turnovers. And it’s the style Tulsa has been watching on film for the past 10 days as it prepares to host the Green Wave in H.A. Chapman Stadium.

That’s what makes Shackleford smile.

“It makes a great difference because they don’t know what we have in our arsenal,” Shackleford said. “They’ve really only seen me and (senior receiver) Xavier (Rush) play last year but most of our offense hasn’t played before. The secondary there hasn’t really seen anybody they’ll see in the game.

“They haven’t seen Tanner play. Our whole offense they don’t know about and we have an explosive offense because we have speed and a great quarterback who can get the ball to us. We have great running backs who can break it if you give them an opening.”

The new additions to the offense are impossible to avoid.

Two of Tulane’s top five wide receivers — Teddy Veal and Terren Encalade — are true freshman. Its starting tight end, Charles Jones II, is a true freshman. Neither Lee nor Badie have played a college snap.

But their inexperience is partially what has Tulane’s veterans so excited. There’s an advantage to being unknown.

“I feel like we are a more explosive unit than a lot of people are ready for,” Rush said. “Our fans are included in that. They don’t know what to expect, because we are a lot different than the last time we played. All any teams knew last year was Ryan Grant and even though Justyn Shackleford and I were there, our numbers weren’t good.

“So, they probably aren’t too worried about us and I think that’s a good thing for us because they don’t know what we have coming and it could really sneak up on them fast.”

Still, until they’re thrust into a live game scenario, there’s no telling how Tulane’s array of newcomers react. Freshmen quarterbacks are particularly susceptible to lapses in judgment and confusion in their first career starts.

How will Lee react if he throws an interception or takes a big hit? Can he read an opposing defense the way did in practice?

Across the board, Tulane’s coaches and players expressed confidence in the former Jesuit product, pointing to his quiet and unwaveringly confident demeanor on the field.

“Tanner is such a cool customer, so If I yell at him, he probably wouldn’t say anything,” Johnson said. “That’s just how he is.”

Confidence and experience usually go hand-in-hand. It’s why the nation’s top-rated teams are littered with juniors and seniors in key roles, rather than freshmen.

Yet Johnson isn’t concerning himself with that coaching tradition. He prefers competition to incumbency and insists his depth chart is a pure meritocracy.

“We want to recruit better than what we have because it’s how you keep getting better,” Johnson said. “These freshmen have come in and pushed the guys in front of them and a bunch of them have passed the guys in front of them. I’m ready to get everybody on the field and show people why they’re here.”