Tulane coach Curtis Johnson stated emphatically Tuesday that redshirt freshman Tanner Lee remained his No. 1 quarterback, not senior Nick Montana.
He was much less certain, though, about who would start Saturday at Central Florida.
Montana, who played all the way in the Green Wave’s 12-3 win against Connecticut, took most of the snaps with the first-team offense in the second of four practices in preparation for the Knights. Backup Devin Powell took the rest while Lee was strictly an observer for the final hour, still unable to play because of a bruised shoulder he sustained against Rutgers on Sept. 27.
“Tanner threw the ball early in practice again and he’s going to throw more (Wednesday),” Johnson said. “He’s going to do more individuals. He’s going to get all the way up to routes on air, and if he feels good doing that, he’ll do a little bit more, probably 7-on-7. Tanner’s the guy if he can play.
“Nick Montana did a great job managing the (UConn) game well. I don’t know who’s the best guy for this one. These (UCF) guys are going to really come after you, so we have to get Montana ready, we have to get Tanner ready and we have to get Devin Powell ready. We have to be careful because this one here (UCF) is going to be a different breed of animal.”
Montana went 4 for 4 during a six-play, 75-yard touchdown drive on Tulane’s first possession against UConn, but the offense scored only three more points the rest of the way, partly because of a conservative game plan and partly because of four holding penalties in a three-possession stretch during the first half.
That lone foray to the end zone was good enough against UConn, which has scored six offensive touchdowns through six games. UCF, the reigning American Athletic Conference champion, scored four touchdowns last Thursday against BYU.
The blueprint for upsetting the Knights (3-2, 1-0 American) involves a whole lot more than just avoiding sacks and interceptions, as Montana did Saturday.
Tulane (2-4, 1-1) tried only one deep pass against UConn, and Montana finished 19 of 26 for 135 yards while relying almost exclusively on underneath routes. If he starts Saturday, he will get a chance to prove his offseason work on his arm strength paid off.
After spring drills ended in February, he took advantage of Hall of Fame father Joe Montana’s connections by traveling to New Jersey three times for tutoring sessions with former Super Bowl MVP Phil Simms. Simms shortened his throwing motion, leading to a quicker release and more velocity.
The change did not help Montana on the depth chart: After starting 11 games in 2013, he fell to third behind Lee and Powell during preseason practice — but it increased his confidence.
“I don’t have that long delivery anymore, and compacting it made everything quicker and smoother,” he said. “It was difficult at first, but if you keep doing reps and keep pushing it, it just comes naturally. Definitely on longer balls towards the sideline and down the field, it feels completely different.”
Senior receiver Justyn Shackleford can vouch for that. Although his 21-yard catch over the middle was Tulane’s longest pass gain against UConn, he insists Montana is capable of much more.
“Oh yeah, Nick’s been launching the ball,” he said. “He had a pass today, it was a go-route throw, and he threw it out of the end zone to (freshman) Teddy Veal. He has some strength in his arm right now and I’m feeling it.”
Still, Johnson talked Tuesday about getting Powell ready, too, and using him for a few deep shots against UCF. Unlike last week, when Montana was clearly the guy despite Johnson’s refusal to name a quarterback publicly, the call could be closer this time.
If Lee proves he is fit, do the coaches risk starting him against a team that had 11 sacks in a two-game span against Bethune-Cookman and Houston? Or do they stick with Montana, who got rid of the ball quickly against UConn?
Johnson hopes Lee makes the decision difficult. Although he threw a nation-leading nine interceptions while starting the first four games, he also had eight touchdown passes, putting the ball in tight windows.
“I think Nick will be fine,” Johnson said. “He’ll figure out how to manage this thing and get it in our favor. We kind of have a plan for all three of them, but you’d like to have our starter back.”