Facing a third down in the red zone portion of Tulane’s first preseason scrimmage, redshirt sophomore quarterback Tanner Lee zipped a pass through a tight window to wide receiver Devon Breaux before he finished his route.
Breaux turned around and the ball was right there for a 17-yard touchdown.
In an otherwise sloppy 75-play scrimmage full of fumbles and penalties, Lee looked sharp and steady on Saturday morning at Yulman Stadium.
“He is checking down to the backs and just getting the ball off on time,” coach Curtis Johnson said. “That ball down the seam, last year it would have been two hours late. It would have been dark by the time the ball got there.”
Don’t mistake the teasing for condescension. Johnson hitched his wagon to Lee by naming him a starter last August, and after a rough debut season, Tulane hopes that decision pays off this fall.
Lee, who threw more interceptions (14) than touchdowns (12) a year ago as Tulane finished 122nd out of 125 FBS teams in passing efficiency, began his day by hitting tight end Kendall Ardoin for a 47-yard catch-and-run on the first play. He capped it with the strike to Breaux. In between, he connected with a diving Breaux for another 47-yard gain, setting up a 6-yard touchdown toss to running back Marshall Wadleigh during the regular portion of the scrimmage.
“I can’t say enough about (Lee),” Johnson said. “He was outstanding. He’s getting command of the offense and figuring out when to run and when to pass. I didn’t see any bad plays that he had. Last year I would have been yelling at him that he should have killed this play or killed that play.”
This time, Lee was not sacked, did not throw an interception and did not have a pass deflected while playing five series. With Tulane’s stat crew counting only plays in the regular portion of the scrimmage, he finished 7 of 12 for 144 yards officially.
“I feel more confident and feel more comfortable in every aspect of being out here,” Lee said. “I think my teammates do as well.”
They will have plenty to work on, though, when they review the video of the scrimmage.
Running back Josh Rounds fumbled in a goal-line drill. Fullback Sergio Medina lost a fumble on the second series of the regular portion. Freshman Andrew Hicks dropped what would have been a certain 46-yard scoring strike from Lee on the fourth series. Tight end Sydie London dropped a pass from backup quarterback Devin Powell after getting behind the secondary. Reserve defensive tackle Eldrick Washington jumped offside on fourth-and-2.
A big reception by running back Josh Rounds was wiped out by an ineligible receiver downfield penalty, one of numerous flags the eight-man officiating crew from the American Athletic Conference threw.
Wide receivers coach Carter Sheridan forced his players to stay after the scrimmage to work on holding on to the ball.
“There were too many balls on the ground, a bunch of drops,” Johnson said. “We had some fumbles. We can’t have that to win.”
Several starters sat out or played sparingly, including running backs Sherman Badie, Lazedrick Thompson and Dontrell Hilliard, safety Darion Monroe, defensive end Royce LaFrance, cornerback Parry Nickerson and linebacker Nico Marley.
With Monroe and Nickerson watching, the back end of the defense struggled. Their absence left the secondary bereft of experience, although redshirt freshman safety Donnie Lewis Jr. capitalized on his expanded role by making an interception, causing a fumble and recovering a fumble.
His interception came on an overthrow from redshirt freshman quarterback Glen Cuillette.
Lewis, a cornerback through spring drills, has played primarily at safety and nickelback this preseason. Tulane has an opening at strong safety, with untested sophomore Tristan Cooper on top of the depth chart entering the scrimmage.
“It’s been something new for me,” Lewis said. “I’m just learning different spots. It’s been fun. Whatever happens, happens. I’m just trying to be a playmaker and make the team better.”
Another position battle — placekicker — looked no closer to a resolution. Incumbent Andrew DiRocco sent a 37-yard field goal off the bottom of the right upright in a kicking drill at the start of the scrimmage before connecting from the same distance. Trevor Simms, whom Johnson had labeled the frontrunner earlier in camp, was wide left and right on his two attempts and also missed an extra point after a touchdown. Freshman Zach Block went 1 for 2, while freshman walk-on Steven Logan hit both of his tries.