NEW ORLEANS — Like a magician working on a new trick, Tulane football coach Curtis Johnson is eagerly anticipating the big reveal ready to take place.
While the second-year coach isn’t trying to fool anyone, he is hoping to illicit a surprisingly positive response and maybe even a gasp or two when his team performs in front of fans and media for the first time since completing its 2-10 season in November. Typically, Tulane’s practices are open to the public, but the construction of Yulman Stadium pushed the Green Wave’s spring drills off campus to the New Orleans Saints’ indoor facility, which is closed to all program outsiders.
So, the Green Wave’s spring scrimmage at 10:15 a.m. Saturday in Tad Gormley Stadium provides the first and last opportunity for Johnson’s team to whet the appetites of a fan base starving for wins, now 11 years removed from its last bowl appearance.
“It’s time for these guys to show what they’ve got, so I’m ready to see them line up and play” Johnson said. “There are just some things that can’t be simulated or re-created in a practice when there’s no one else there. And even though there’s another week left of the spring, it’s going to be a really big day for everyone out there when it comes to showing the progress that we’re trying to make.
“We aren’t locking anybody down in any position at this point, and we’re keeping everything open until the fall, so each snap is going to be looked at and evaluated. But these are particularly important because of the circumstances.”
Practicing in the closed-off environment has shielded players from outside observation to this point, most prominently at the highly scrutinized quarterback position. Both redshirt junior newcomer Nick Montana and redshirt freshman Devin Powell are jockeying to replace recently graduated Ryan Griffin and have received lavish praise from the coaching staff and fellow teammates throughout the spring.
However, not all of the position’s demands have been uncovered. Junior running back Dante Butler said he’s eager to see how both signal-callers react in the huddle with unfamiliar eyes peering upon them from the sidelines and game-like pressure coming from the defense.
There are other untested logistical issues which will also be new to the practice field on Saturday, most notably the inclusion of unscripted play calls relayed from offensive coordinator Eric Price to the sideline and down to the quarterbacks. Johnson said determining whether either quarterback can take efficiently recognize the signals and command of the huddle will be a major topic in his post-practice evaluation.
“It’s going to be a bit different than what I’ve done here before,” Montana said. “I mean, I take each practice for what it is, and I’m not worrying about the extra attention, but it will be a different kind of challenge to deal with getting in and out of the huddle and having to recognize the plays. It’s all little stuff, and I feel confident I can do it well, but it is going to be different.”
Yet, it’s the traditional aspects of judging quarterbacks, like converting first downs and leading touchdown drives, that will be paramount, Green Wave quarterbacks coach Mike Neu said. While coaches have had long looks at the strengths and weaknesses both Montana and Powell possess, it will be amped up Saturday morning against a live defense also looking to make a name for itself in front of fans and media.
While Neu and Johnson plan to give equal first-team snaps to each of the quarterbacks, one may be able to wrestle away more playing time based on the length of drives and success in moving the offense. It’s an obvious motivator to ensure team-wide success in the midst of an individual contest.
“It’s definitely a competition out there,” Neu said. “We are working to get both of them better, but there’s no doubt we are looking to find a starting quarterback and performing well in an environment like (Saturday) could be the difference in our evaluations. We want to see who fits in best with our team and we are trying to figure that out every day. This one is important.”