Curtis Johnson knew he wasn’t escaping media day without discussing his quarterbacks.
In front of a full squad room for Tulane’s annual preseason media day at the Wilson Center, the Green Wave’s third-year coach repeatedly spoke about the three passers vying for the starting spot. And he employed a variety of ways to keep from revealing a frontrunner or illustrating a timetable for his decision.
Instead, Johnson spent a large portion of his 27-minute news conference dancing around questions regarding the specific pecking order of redshirt freshman Tanner Lee, redshirt sophomore Devin Powell and senior Nick Montana.
This is nothing new.
Last year, Johnson’s preseason news conference played out similarly before he eventually named Montana the starter one week before the season opener. Right now, Johnson is looking for each quarterback to provide him with more positive evidence, particularly when full pads come on for the first time Friday in the New Orleans Saints’ practice facility.
“I thought Tanner Lee did the best during the spring,” Johnson said. “But Devin Powell was right there, and Nick did some good things, and so far in camp Nick is looking pretty good, Tanner is looking great, and Devin is looking good, too.
“After we have this scrimmage on Saturday, I want to know the 30, 40 or 50 players who are going to play and help us win as many games as we can. Once we know that, we may have two or three quarterbacks, or we may have one quarterback.”
Across the country, every coach without a locked-in starting quarterback is evading the same question, but at Tulane the position takes on an especially important meaning this year. Under the direction of Montana and Powell, the Green Wave’s offense sputtered last season, ranking 112th nationally in total yards and 104th in passing yards per game, despite Tulane attaining its first winning season since 2002.
But, beyond the lack of production, it was the 16 interceptions (compared to 19 touchdowns) that cost Tulane a chance at a Conference USA championship.
“We had an outstanding defense, and without the turnovers, we could have won maybe one, two, three or even four more games,” Johnson said. “So, the one thing that was most upsetting was when we just had games with turnover after turnover. If you eliminate those turnovers, even in Pop Warner, you have a chance of winning.”
And all three quarterbacks were quick to point toward limiting mistakes as their highest priority for fall camp.
“There’s no question it’s the thing we hear about most,” Montana said. “It’s no different than what we’ve heard in the past, but we just need to be better.”
There’s also a new layer to the mix in quarterbacks coach Aaron Price. The brother of offensive coordinator Eric Price is the only fresh face on the Green Wave staff this season (defensive line coach Kwahn Drake was a graduate assistant), replacing Mike Neu, who left to take the same position with the Saints.
Price toed Johnson’s line as well, not specifically naming a front-runner, but he did have superlatives for each of the three starting candidates. He complimented Lee’s superior arm strength and touch, Powell’s leadership and understanding of the system and said Montana’s revised delivery which made him the most improved player at the position.
Still, Lee is considered by many to be the frontrunner, thanks to his performance in the spring. It allowed Lee to leap Montana and into a first-place tie with Powell on the offseason depth chart.
But regardless of how it’s perceived by outsiders, all three said they’re approaching each practice as if they’re going to be named starter. “You have to kind of block out everything else and all of the stuff that’s being asked and try not to look at what everyone else is doing,” Lee said. “I just have to go to work and do my job and execute the offense. Even if we go into the first game and more than one of us plays, we just have to keep trying to impress the coaches.”
Johnson also admitted he liked the competition and believes it breeds some of the extra competition he’s seeking during practice. So, the quarterbacks don’t expect an answer soon.
In the meantime, Johnson is happy to dance around the questions.
“Oh yeah, this is nothing new for us,” Powell said. “We know what he wants to see and whoever gets the closest to being there is going to be the quarterback. I’ll have a chance to show what I can do.”