After watching Tanner Lee throw short and deep during team drills Tuesday, Tulane coach Curtis Johnson was smiling as he left the practice field.
Barring a downturn, Lee will start against Connecticut on Saturday at Yulman Stadium.
“It’s good to have our quarterback back,” Johnson said. “It looks like he’s good to go. The offense looks different (with Lee practicing). If Tanner plays, he definitely gives us the best chance of winning the game.”
Lee sat out Tulane’s 41-13 loss to Memphis with an finger injury he suffered a week earlier against Navy that still requires him to wear a splint. His replacement, 5-foot-10 former walk-on Jordy Joseph, began fast in his first career start but finished slow, going 5 of 19 for 48 yards and producing zero points after guiding the Wave to touchdowns on its first two series.
Tulane (2-6, 1-4 American Athletic Conference) has been outscored 163-44 in its past four games — but the opponents have a combined 29-2 record, and Lee missed two of them. He was held out against Houston on Oct. 16 with lingering effects from a concussion.
“I feel the same way I felt after I missed the Houston game,” he said. “I hate not being able to play and having to stay on the sideline and not being able to help. It was just great again to put the pads back on and practice. I have to stay healthy. We’re looking forward to this week. We’re excited.”
Tulane faces the long-shot scenario of having to win its final four games to become bowl eligible, but at least the schedule is easing dramatically. The Wave’s four November opponents have a combined record of 11-22, starting with UConn (4-5, 2-3) for homecoming
Trips to Army (2-6) and SMU (1-7) and the finale at home against Tulsa (4-4) follow the matchup with the Huskies.
“After all is said and done, our goal of making a bowl game is still there,” Lee said. “What’s in the past is in the past. We want to go 1-0 this week, then 1-0 next week and keep it going.”
Lee had one of his best games against Navy, completing 22 of 31 passes for 205 yards and a touchdown as Tulane hung around into the fourth quarter before falling 31-14. A series of mistakes hampered the offense again — including Lee’s fumble on a sneak at the Navy 2-yard line — but he felt the Wave was closer than ever.
“We keep confidence and we stay together and we’re a close group,” he said. “When we play good against teams like that and are two or three plays away from winning, it gives us something more to work towards because we are on the hump. We’re right there. We’re close.”
Johnson believes Lee is on the verge of a breakout game.
“He’s getting better each week,” Johnson said. “Against Temple sometimes he kind of stood there and was a target. Against Navy, his eyes were downfield, he was moving around and he was hitting receivers. He was doing some stuff that you love to see.”
If Lee’s finger holds up, the Wave should be near full strength offensively. Starting left tackle Arturo Uzdavinis practiced Tuesday after missing the Memphis game with a concussion. Running back Lazedrick Thompson, who has missed the last four games with an ankle sprain, was cleared to play, too.
Thompson, Tulane’s most physical runner, gained 73 yards on 12 carries in the Wave’s 12-3 win against UConn last season.
Even the Memphis result can be used as a confidence-builder for the offense. Joseph led an 11-minute, 13-second touchdown drive on the opening possession, and Dontrell Hilliard scored on a 43-yard run the next time the Wave had the ball.
Joseph’s limitations (game experience, arm strength) stymied Tulane the rest of the way, but Hilliard is coming off season highs for carries (19) and yards (97).
“We have confidence,” said wide receiver Teddy Veal, who caught a 35-yard pass to set up the second touchdown. “We know what we are capable of doing. We are at a point where we have to face adversity and get over it.
“That first drive (against Memphis) dictated who we really are as Tulane football. We just have to keep doing that.”