An afterthought since the beginning of fall practice, Nick Montana may be on the verge of playing meaningful downs again for Tulane.
As injured starter Tanner Lee watched, Montana worked primarily with the No. 1 offense Tuesday morning in the first of two open-week practices for the Green Wave (1-4). Although coach Curtis Johnson was noncommittal about Lee’s status for the Oct. 11 game against Connecticut, he said Montana would have the opportunity to beat out redshirt sophomore Devin Powell.
Lee, a redshirt freshman who started Tulane’s first five games, left Saturday against Rutgers late in the first quarter with a right shoulder injury. Powell replaced him and went 6 for 15 for 53 yards in the Wave’s 31-6 loss. Montana, a senior, entered for mop-up duty midway through the fourth quarter, going 5 of 5 for 18 yards on his only series.
“Nick did a better job (than Powell),” Johnson said. “He had less time, but he did a better job. Nick’s always been a good player. Both of those kids (Montana and Powell) will probably have to play. We’ll see who’s the better quarterback.”
Montana’s action against Rutgers was his first since he was benched early in the second quarter of the New Orleans Bowl in December after throwing an interception that was returned for a touchdown. That mistake capped a rough, injury-plagued debut season for him.
He transferred from Mt. San Antonio Junior College in January 2013 as a potential savior following the graduation of Ryan Griffin. He ended it with the offense in reverse. Tulane failed to score more than 17 points in four of its last five regular season games.
Although Montana started 11 times, he struggled after injuring his throwing shoulder in the first half at Syracuse on Sept. 21 and re-injuring it two weeks later against North Texas. He completed 53.4 percent of his passes with 14 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Only seven of those scoring tosses came in the last 10 games, when his arm strength dropped significantly.
He fell to third on the depth chart this year, but Lee’s injury and Powell’s ineffectiveness against Rutgers altered his status quickly. Powell failed to produce more than one first down on any of his four second-half possessions, and Tulane scored its only points in his three quarters on Sherman Badie’s 86-yard touchdown run.
“In the second half, we just needed a change,” quarterbacks coach Aaron Price said. “We put in Nick and he got us lined up correctly and made a couple of correct checks and put us in position to move the ball.”
Montana was unavailable for interviews because he had to rush to class, but Price has been high on him since Media Day in August, when he praised a new throwing motion Montana worked on with former NFL quarterback Phil Simms during the offseason.
“The transformation he made to the spring from last fall is something I haven’t seen before,” Price said. “He definitely put the time in. The progression he made just getting his release to be on time and strengthening his arm so the ball comes out with a zip and spiral has really helped his game.”
Still, Lee will start when he is healthy. The question is how soon that will be. Johnson, admitting he did not want to tip his hand to Connecticut, refused to put a timetable on his return.
“We are going day to day with this thing,” Johnson said. “He has not thrown the football yet, so I would like to see him throw before I put him in the fire. If the doctor says he can’t go, then we’ll make a decision.”
After throwing eight interceptions in his last three games, Lee completed 7 of 9 against Rutgers, including a strike over the middle that freshman Teddy Veal converted into a 40-yard gain. The Wave moved inside the 10 before a chop-block penalty and the sack forced a punt.
“This was probably his best start,” Price said. “He actually graded out really well on the plays he was in. I was excited about it. He had a great week of practice last week, got in the game and was really on target, throwing check-downs and doing the things we needed to do to move the football.”
Lee’s only mistake was holding the ball too long when he took the sack, but that one was costly. He injured his shoulder when he landed on the turf.
“As a young quarterback you want to make a great play every time,” Johnson said. “Sometimes you have to throw the ball away. You don’t need to be a hero.”