Tulane coach Curtis Johnson lit into freshman wide receiver Terren Encalade after he tried to make a one-handed catch of a long pass Tanner Lee threw to him in the end zone during Tuesday morning’s practice.
“I’m sick and tired of that,” Johnson screamed. “Catch it like every receiver in football, with two hands. That was a perfect throw. It was an easy catch.”
His message to Encalade and everyone else was loud and clear: The struggling Lee will need more help from the guys around him when Tulane (1-3) plays at Rutgers (3-1) on Saturday.
Before Lee threw three interceptions against Duke — giving him a nation-high nine picks for the year — he was victimized by two dropped touchdowns. First, senior wide receiver Xavier Rush failed to hold on to a ball he caught in the air after getting popped on the way down. Later, freshman Teddy Veal let a beautiful pass go right through his hands in the corner of the end zone.
Lee’s first interception came on the next snap, sending him into a tailspin. Before Veal’s drop, he was 5-of-8 passing and led one touchdown drive. He went 9-of-27 the rest of the way as the Green Wave made a sea of mistakes in its 47-13 loss.
“We drop balls and then we blame the quarterback. But the quarterback is throwing it as well as he can and sometimes under duress,” Johnson said. “Those guys have to make those plays.”
Johnson’s other message was clear, too. He has not even thought about benching Lee, a redshirt freshman who has completed only 47.4 percent of his passes through four games, in favor of sophomore Devin Powell or senior Nick Montana.
“I’m still confident (in Lee),” Johnson said. “I have to take myself away from it to go back and watch the film and see him getting better. He’s doing some things really well. The problem with our team is we put this kid in third-and-15, third-and-10, third-and-8. If it’s third-and-6, I feel he’s going to make it every time.”
Outwardly, Lee has not lost any self-belief. After impressing his coaches with his leadership in the preseason, he still said all the right things.
“We’ve made mistakes here and there, but I take the blame,” he said. “Put it on me. I’m the leader of the offense. That’s fine with me. But my teammates have been telling me they’ve got my back. The coaches have my back, and I have their back. It’s just a matter of cleaning up the mistakes.”
His own mistakes came in bunches against Duke. With Tulane trailing 19-7 late in the first half, he hit linebacker Zavier Carmichael in the chest on a throw from the Blue Devils’ 13-yard line, killing one promising drive.
That interception started a string of six passes without a completion. Then in the fourth quarter, he never saw cornerback Bryon Fields on an out route, gift-wrapping a 22-yard interception return that gave the Blue Devils a 40-13 lead.
Johnson credited Duke for running a coverage it had never shown on video on that play.
“We never repped it, and we never talked about it,” Johnson said. “It’s a learning experience. He’ll know it now if he sees it. Tanner just needs some success. We’re playing some good opponents. It’s not like we’re playing some of the teams we played last year. This kid’s playing against 4-0 teams (Georgia Tech and Duke).”
Lee’s eight touchdown passes rank him third among American Athletic Conference quarterbacks. He had none against Duke, but he would have reached double figures without those two drops.
“It was a great throw by Tanner and a great read,” Rush said of his miscue. “The defender put his helmet right on the ball, but I could have brought it in a different way. I look at myself as an elite player, and elite players make that catch.”
Clearly, Lee has not lost the confidence of his teammates. Rush defended him as vigorously as Johnson, and so did safety Darion Monroe.
“He’s just making the freshman throws, but those throws are going to stop because Tanner is a smart guy,” Monroe said. “After the game, he texted me, Sam (Scofield) and X (Rush), and he was like, this has got to stop. He said I’m about to get in my playbook and stop and we’re going to win.
“He texted (us) right after the game, when we got on the bus.”