The initial reviews of Tulane quarterback Tanner Lee were resoundingly positive.
Despite a sluggish second half in the Green Wave’s 38-31 season-opening loss to Tulsa, the redshirt freshman impressed coach Curtis Johnson. And the praise wasn’t because he threw for 262 yards and three touchdowns.
Lee’s mental maturity and toughness, despite playing in his first collegiate game, stood out. He completed passes to eight receivers, often finding his second and third options to do so. He never showed irritability in the huddle or on the sideline after a mistake. And he made some critical reads at the line of scrimmage.
One play in particular stood out to Johnson. With Tulane leading 21-20 and facing a third-and-5 at its own 40-yard line, Lee walked to the line of scrimmage barking out signals to the offense, sensing a heavy blitz heading his way.
His intuition was right, and by the time multiple Tulsa defenders invaded the backfield, Lee already had bypassed his first two options and found a streaking Xavier Rush uncovered down the far sideline. Rush darted to the end zone untouched for a 60-yard touchdown, and Johnson’s jaw practically hit the turf.
“I don’t know how he found him,” Johnson said. “That’s something I’ve only seen Drew Brees do. They were coming with six-man pressure, and they hit him on that play. He went through his progressions so fast, he must have processed it. He saw them making the call, because the (defensive backs) were on the same level, and I couldn’t believe he found Rush.
“He found him, and it was a great play. It was way beyond his years. That’s Year 2 or 3 in the program.”
Not that Lee was perfect in his recognition, though. In the final two minutes of the first half, the former Jesuit standout was sacked and fumbled in the red zone when he called an audible out of a run play into a pass but failed to properly communicate the protection change.
The result was an untouched defensive end and a play that flipped the game’s momentum. It was a youthful error, but one that didn’t faze Lee.
“One thing about him is that he’s cool as the other side of the pillow,” Johnson said. “Nothing rattles him. He got hit nine times. And sometimes he had the wrong protections and did some things wrong that young quarterbacks do. He just got up like it was nothing. And a couple of times, I didn’t think he was going to get up.
“Every time when he got hit, the ball was catchable, and about half of them were caught. He just found the check-downs, and that’s something we haven’t seen here. I think he’s going to be a phenomenal player for us.”
Filling NFL roster spots
It’s no longer a rarity to hear Tulane’s name pop up on an NFL roster.
For several years, Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte and journeyman offensive lineman Troy Kropog served as the Green Wave’s lone representatives. Quarterback Ryan Griffin reached the Saints active roster midway through last season, ending a three-year drought, although Griffin was released Tuesday.
Three more were added to the fraternity last weekend, when receiver Ryan Grant (Washington Redskins), running back Orleans Darkwa (Miami Dolphins) and kicker Cairo Santos (Kansas City Chiefs) all earned their place onto 53-man rosters.
“It just makes us proud as a program,” Johnson said. “In a few short years, we have guys, and not just one guy, to be mentally tough enough to go in there and make a team. It is just phenomenal to have guys who do that.”
Junior safety Darion Monroe said his phone has been busy the past two weeks from friends and family looking for tickets to Tulane’s home opener against Georgia Tech at 3 p.m. Saturday in Yulman Stadium.
Tulane sold out its 4,300 student tickets in less than 48 hours. And when it released 500 more Thursday, those were snapped up by students in less than an hour.
“It’s totally different around here,” Monroe said. “They know who we are now, and they didn’t really care about football the last two years I’ve been here. When we were playing at the Dome, not too many people wanted to get up and go catch a shuttle. Now they can go from the club the night before and walk out there to catch the game.
“I have been getting a lot of texts from people telling me its sold out and wondering if I can get them tickets. And that’s from students, and they get them for free. It’s been really fun.”