Tulane freshman quarterback Tanner Lee did not start at Jesuit High School until his senior year. For that, the Green Wave is very thankful.
Lee surged last season, throwing 25 touchdown passes with only two interceptions while leading the Blue Jays to the second round of the Class 5A state playoffs. He put up particularly eye-popping numbers in a wild 56-49 win over Shaw in September, shattering school records with 552 yards and seven touchdowns.
By then, he already had been committed to Tulane for nearly four months. When bigger schools became aware of him, it was too late.
“He’s got such a bright future ahead of him,” Tulane quarterbacks coach Mike Neu said. “If he had a year like that as a junior, there would have been a lot more competition for his services. We were in a lot of ways very fortunate.”
The Green Wave had an in with Lee other than proximity. Saints offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. was friends with Lee’s father because their kids grew up playing baseball together. As a result, Tulane coach Curtis Johnson, the Saints wide receivers coach from 2006-2011, and Neu, an advance scout for the Saints from 2009-11, were aware of Lee’s potential when they arrived at Tulane in January 2012.
Six days into preseason practice, Lee (6-feet-4 and 204 pounds) already looks like a good bet to be Tulane’s quarterback of the future. The coaches aren’t discounting his chances of playing a significant role this year, too, despite the presence of likely starter Nick Montana. The four quarterbacks on the roster — Montana, Lee, redshirt freshman Devin Powell and walk-on Jordy Joseph — have received equal repetitions in the first week.
Lee’s was the first name Johnson mentioned after two of those practices.
“He throws the deep ball really well,” Johnson said after Tulane’s fourth practice. “I’ll be watching those guys, and then all of a sudden I’ll see Tanner Lee throw something that was special. All of those guys are competing. We’ll name a starter, but you’ll see another guy running in and playing just to make sure we’re not making a wrong decision.”
Lee is doing everything in his power to make that decision harder. Montana beat him to campus, joining the team in January and participating in spring practice. Montana certainly has the edge in experience, having spent two years at Washington before starting at California’s Mt. San Antonio Community College last season.
Lee’s answer is to work overtime to gain any edge he can.
“I’m learning a lot every day,” he said. “I’m learning from the veteran players about how practice is supposed to run smoothly. I’m getting in the playbook every day and getting stronger in the weight room. I’ve got to do everything right to push myself to perform at the highest level.”
At the same time, there is no urgency. History indicates true freshman quarterbacks need a year of seasoning before they are ready.
Three years before he led Tulane to a perfect season in 1998, Shaun King, the Wave’s all-time leader in passing efficiency, started and completed only 46.2 percent of his throws with seven interceptions and two touchdowns. Before he led Tulane to a 9-3 record and the Liberty Bowl as a senior in 1979, Roch Hontas threw nine interceptions and two touchdowns as a freshman starter in 1976. Tulane went 2-9 in both of those freshman seasons.
Lee played sparingly at Jesuit as a sophomore, then shared time with starter Cameron Dobbins, a running specialist, as the Blue Jays won a district championship in his junior season.
“I feel like Jesuit really prepared me for the college-type offense,” Lee said. “The same concepts were there, so it’s adjusting to the speed. My senior year of high school was one of the best experiences of my life, but I was prepared to start my sophomore year. Even though I didn’t get as much playing time, I was there mentally.”
If he gets to the same point at Tulane, he’ll be tough to keep on the sideline. Physically, he already is advanced.
“He has some of those tools that you really can’t teach,” Neu said. “He has really good size, he has good feet and gets a lot of zip on the ball. He can make any throw.”