Despite not practicing much until Thursday, redshirt freshman quarterback Tanner Lee will start for Tulane against Southeastern Louisiana.
It is an indication both of Lee’s importance to the team and the respect coach Curtis Johnson has for the Lions. Coming off a run deep in the 2013 Football Championship Subdivision playoffs, Southeastern Louisiana is nothing like typical lower-level cannon fodder.
Johnson is less worried about getting the Lions’ best shot than he is about handling their average shot.
“They are just a very good team,” he said. “They should play with a chip on their shoulder, but they don’t need a chip on their shoulder.”
Tulane is 11-0 against opponents from the FCS, which was formed as Division I-AA in 1978 when the NCAA’s top level split into two divisions. Southeastern Louisiana was the victim four times, most recently in 2011 as Tulane won 47-33 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
This time, though, the Lions (2-0) are ranked No. 3 in the coaches’ FCS poll. They hammered Jacksonville 44-3 and Southern Utah 41-14 in their first two games. Dual-threat quarterback Bryan Bennett, a 6-foot-3, 215-pound Oregon transfer in his second year as a starter, has thrown for 535 yards and four touchdowns while rushing for 163 yards and two scores, and his average completion is for a whopping 22.3 yards.
“The first order of business in this whole mission is, we have to contain this guy,” Johnson said. “I don’t know if you can ever stop a kid who’s that talented, but we just have to contain him and hopefully get him off his mark a little bit and stop him from running some. If we can do that, then we’ll have a chance to beat these guys.”
Southeastern also boasts Tulane transfer Jordan Batiste, a cornerback who led the Wave with seven sacks last season, and LSU transfer Micah Eugene, a cornerback with 11 tackles this year. Batiste added an interception against Southern Utah.
Their presence made the decision to start Lee a no-brainer once he went through a full practice. He threw three touchdown passes in Tulane’s season-opening 38-31 double-overtime loss at Tulsa and had two more against Georgia Tech last Saturday before being pulled at the end of the third quarter for what Johnson alternately described as a heat problem and getting “dinged.”
Lee, who has not been made available for interviews this week, sat out practices Sunday and Tuesday and was limited Wednesday, but Johnson liked what he saw Thursday morning.
“He looked real good,” Johnson said. “He practiced really well. We had an extra period for him, a little review period after practice.”
Redshirt sophomore Devin Powell replaced Lee in the fourth quarter against Georgia Tech but did not produce any points in Tulane’s 38-21 loss. Although Powell worked with the first-team offense this week until Thursday, Johnson said he was not concerned about Lee missing valuable reps.
“He’s a smart kid,” Johnson said. “He knows exactly what to do. It was like he was coaching them himself today. He’s going to start. I think he’s going to do well.”
After losing its first two games, Tulane has to beat Southeastern if it wants any realistic chance to match its bowl appearance from a year ago — the first for the program in 11 years. Senior safety Sam Scofield said that incentive alone is enough to get the Wave ready for Southeastern, along with the secondary’s eagerness to atone for a subpar performance against Tulsa (getting torched for 438 yards). Georgia Tech, which attempted only eight passes, did not provide an opportunity to prove the opener was a fluke.
“We’re expecting them to come in here wanting to beat us, but we’re going to come out high energy also,” Scofield said. “We’re looking to play a lot better and make a statement. We have to have a desperate mentality to get our feet back under us.”
They also will get another new experience. After playing their first game on campus in 40 years last Saturday, they will play under the lights outdoors in New Orleans for the first time since 1974.
“I sweated through a couple of pair of pants and shirts and everything else,” Johnson said. “A night game will be very, very good. I think we’re going to love it.”
Johnson said sophomore MLB Edward Williams, a highly touted 2013 signee from Warren Easton, would make his first career start Saturday. Williams played in the first two games and did not register a tackle. … CB Taurean Nixon and DE Ade Aruna, who missed the Georgia Tech game with groin injuries, have been cleared to play.