Curtis Johnson saw the same player, wearing the same No. 12, lining up under center for his Tulane football team.
But he noticed a completely different quarterback emerge.
Tanner Lee, the redshirt freshman who started each of the Green Wave’s first five games before missing two because of a shoulder injury, may not have played a perfect game in Tulane’s 38-14 loss to Cincinnati — but to Johnson, the improvement was obvious.
Gone was the gunslinger who tossed nine interceptions in his first four games and the thrower whose confidence sometimes overcompensated for a lack of comprehension.
It’s not that Lee was intentionally ignorant; defenses just knew how to confuse him with coverages and bait him into risky passes.
Against the Bearcats, however, Lee rarely threw into tight coverage and pinpointed safe routes, even when the pressure got dialed up. It will be imperative for Lee to repeat that type of performance against an aggressive Houston defense, when Tulane (2-6, 1-3 American) battles the Cougars (5-3, 3-1) inside TDECU Stadium at 2:30 p.m. Saturday.
“I think the decision making is outstanding now,” Johnson said. “If you go back and watch it, I don’t know if there was a bad read. There was some stuff that was bad athletically where we weren’t as good at some spots just yet, but I don’t think there was a bad read in that game.”
Lee completed passes to 10 different receivers, routinely looking off deeper targets for higher-percentage passes. While some his explosiveness was gone — Tulane’s longest completion was just 18 yards — the lack of turnovers plays into the hands of a typically stout Green Wave defense.
After an interception-laden September, Lee credited having a month off for much of his mental maturity, which has now seen him throw more than 50 consecutive passes without a pick. During his recovery from a bruised shoulder, Lee studied game film and spoke often with senior Nick Montana about what he had done wrong in the first four games.
“It’s just a matter of knowing what I’m supposed to do and recognizing when I’m supposed to do it,” Lee said. “I think the couple of weeks off helped, even though it was hard to deal with. There’s a lot that goes into it, and I think I’m getting better, but we still aren’t playing a complete game. There’s a lot left for us to work on.”
Lee knows the learning curve is still steep. Mistakes were evident last week, highlighted by a fourth-down play on the Green Wave’s opening drive.
After driving to the Bearcats’ 3-yard line, Tulane called a simple bootleg but it resulted in a 9-yard loss. Johnson said one adjustment, that won’t show up in the postgame box score, could have made the difference between starting the game ahead 7-0 rather than down 24-0 at halftime.
“The worst thing he did was on that fourth-down play,” Johnson said. “We had the play. The corner usually crashes, and (Lee) didn’t hide the ball. It kind of cost us, maybe a touchdown. But if he would have hid it, I don’t think the corner would have seen it. The corner said it afterward. He said, ‘I saw the ball the whole time in his hand.’ Those are the little things that freshmen don’t do. I’ll tell you this — he’ll never make that mistake again, because he’s not a habitual mistake-maker.”
Lee has already labeled the areas where improvement is necessary. It starts on third down, where many of Tulane’s promising drives stalled against Cincinnati. The Wave was just 3-of-13 opportunities as blitzes flew into the backfield.
Lee knows he’ll feel some heat in the backfield in Houston. He estimated Cincinnati blitzed 95 percent of the time against Tulane, a number much higher than the Bearcats had shown in previous weeks. He expects the Cougars will do the same.
But if Lee can continue to cut down on mistakes and harness his arm strength, he believes Tulane’s offense — which has averaged just 11.6 points in its past five games — can be on the verge of a breakthrough.
“We just have to put together a complete game,” Lee said. “We didn’t have many penalties or any turnovers last game, but the story of the game was third downs and the red zone. We were 3-of-13 on that, and we have to win that battle this week so we can get the results we need to get.”