Tanner Lee hated having to stand on the sideline, watching Nick Montana start at quarterback for Tulane against Connecticut and Central Florida. He did not let that time go to waste, though.
Almost certain to return from a right shoulder injury when the Green Wave hosts Cincinnati on Halloween Night at Yulman Stadium, Lee, a redshirt freshman, wants to adapt part of Montana’s philosophy.
“I’ve learned a lot from how Nick approaches games,” he said. “He doesn’t get hit often, and he gets rid of the ball. He helps me out a lot with that kind of stuff and what he sees because he’s been through it all.”
Lee was hurt Sept. 27 on a play when he did not get rid of the ball. Trying to make something happen late in the first quarter against Rutgers, he waited too long before getting sacked and having his shoulder driven into the turf. His day was done, and as it turned out, so was most of his October.
Tulane’s trainers finally cleared him to throw regularly this week at Tulane’s Tuesday and Wednesday practices. The Green Wave will take off the rest of its open week before beginning normal preparation for Cincinnati on Sunday, but coach Curtis Johnson already noticed a difference between the pre- and post-injury Lee.
“He’s early, he’s accurate and he’s throwing it hard,” Johnson said. “He’s getting it off sooner and he’s throwing a couple away, something he hasn’t done. Before he thought he had to make every play. Now he knows we have another good play and we have another down.”
Lee led the nation with nine interceptions through four games, but he also tossed eight touchdown passes in 142 attempts. Montana had much lower totals in both categories during his relief stint, throwing a pair of picks with one touchdown in 73 attempts in mop-up duty against Rutgers, a 12-3 victory against UConn and a 20-13 loss to UCF.
The goal is for Lee to cut out the mistakes while continuing to make big plays as he returns from his forced sabbatical.
“Of course I wanted to be out there, but I had to be smart,” he said. “I had to be patient and listen to the trainers. I know they had my best interest in mind. I just kind of put my head down and worked and made sure I didn’t lose any velocity. I had some time to focus on my footwork and my throwing motion, so I use it as a beneficial thing. Today I wasn’t thinking about my arm hurting or anything. The arm is just muscle memory. It comes naturally.”
So does Lee’s competitiveness. He engaged in a playful shouting match with safety Darion Monroe near the end of Wednesday’s practice after throwing away from him, telling Monroe it would have been an easy touchdown if he had gone to Monroe’s side. With Tulane sitting at 2-5 during its second open week, he knows he will need to be sharp against Cincinnati.
Although the Wave’s record is somewhat understandable considering its upgrade in nonconference opponents, no one on the team expected to be in this position entering the heart of the American Athletic Conference schedule.
“There’s definitely a sense of urgency in the locker room right now,” Lee said. “We know we have to get this thing rolling to get to a bowl game, so everybody is really staying positive. No one’s really negative and down on themselves. We definitely know we can do it. We know it’s a real thing we can achieve.”
It’s up to Lee. Barring another injury, the Montana portion of the season is over.
“If he (Lee) can start, he’s the starter, just like last year when we started Nick as soon as he was back,” Johnson said. “A couple of his throws weren’t where we wanted them to be, but (Tanner) looked good today. He looked awesome.”
Montana, who hurt his non-throwing shoulder when he took a late hit that was flagged in the fourth quarter against UCF, did not throw Tuesday or Wednesday. Said Johnson: “I wanted to give him a couple of days off. Let’s see if he can come back on Sunday and do something. You have to be careful with those injuries.” If Montana is not ready, Devin Powell will back up Lee. ... Sophomore cornerback Richard Allen, who has made five tackles while playing in all seven games, was on crutches Wednesday after injuring an ankle in practice Tuesday. ... Asked what his Halloween costume would be, Johnson said he would “dress up as a winning coach.”