Tanner Lee makes strong case to be Tulane’s starting QB

Redshirt freshman quarterback Tanner Lee directed an 80-yard touchdown drive to open Tulane’s Saturday morning scrimmage at Tad Gormley Stadium.

On his second series, Lee finished another 80-yard drive with a scoring toss.

The next time he stepped on the field, Lee completed a 40-yard touchdown pass on the first play.

The redshirt freshman from Jesuit High School needed two plays to produce a touchdown on his fourth possession.

You get the picture, and so did Tulane coach Curtis Johnson, who named Lee the clear frontrunner for the starting job in a competition with senior Nick Montana and redshirt sophomore Devin Powell.

‘Tanner Lee was sensational today,” Johnson said. “He had command of the offense. He did what a quarterback should do. He got in some bad positions and led us down the field just like the capable leader we need to win some games in this (American Athletic) conference.

“I would say pencil his name in (as the starter). It looks like’s ready to take the helm.”

Unofficially, Lee finished 12 of 20 for 139 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions, but the number that really mattered was the four touchdowns in his first four possessions. His big play on the first one was a 22-yard strike to tight end Sydie London before Tulane finished the drive on the ground, with Dante Butler converting a fourth-and-1 by ripping off an 18-yard run right before freshman Dontrell Hilliard raced 24 yards to the end zone.

Lee had a more direct role on the other touchdowns. He zipped a pass to a leaping Devon Breaux in the back of the end zone on third-and-goal from the 15 on his second series, which came after Powell and freshman Glen Cuillette directed drives that ended in no points.

After sitting out three more series, Lee returned and promptly threw a 40-yard strike to freshman Teddy Veal for a touchdown on his first play, beating cornerback Donnie Lewis, Jr.

Seconds later, Lee completed an 8-yard pass to Terren Encalade before finding Butler on a wheel route for a 32-yard score.

“It’s been a goal forever (to start in college) and I’ve been working for it like crazy,” said Lee, a Destrehan native. “To see all this kind of start coming to fruition and feeling as confident as I do in my teammates and the offense is comforting.”

Tulane finished near the bottom of the NCAA in yards per game in Johnson’s first two years as coach. While Lee redshirted last season, Montana and Powell combined for 19 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. The Green Wave failed to score 20 points in four of its last six games, finishing 7-6 after a 6-2 start.

Lee ended spring drills as a co-starter with Powell ahead of Montana. On Saturday, he vaulted ahead of everyone.

Powell and Montana had some bright moments. Powell, who played the second and seventh series, finished 11 of 16 for 111 yards with one touchdown pass. Montana, who entered for two series after true freshman Glen Cuillette took the third, went 3 of 7 for 24 yards with a fourth-down scoring toss to a diving Breaux.

Neither of them produced like Lee, though.

“What I’m really impressed with him is he’s showed a lot of leadership and a lot of consistency,” Johnson said of Lee. “He doesn’t lead by yelling and screaming at guys. He just leads by example. He just throws it in there, and if there’s a bad play he shrugs it off. He’s a guy that you love throwing the ball.”

It was not a totally perfect day. Lee said he should have mixed the snap count up more, admitted he missed a few reads and lamented his failure to connect with an open Veal up the seam on his last series.

“I’m glad we’re making those mistakes now,” Lee said. “Next time, I’m not going to miss that throw. Teddy knows that. He ran the route well. I told him it was my fault and I won’t miss it again.”

On Lee’s final touchdown throw, his normally tight spiral wobbled all the way to Butler.

“I quick released it, and it came out funny,” Lee said. “Just get it there. It got there, so that’s all I’m worried about. It was not pretty. It was not my best.”

Still, Lee capped a terrific opening week of preseason practice in grand style, providing a boost for an offense that has been Johnson’s primary focus since the start of camp.

He liked the play of freshman receivers, with Veal, Terren Encalade (four catches, 24 yards) and Leondre James (two catches, 39 yards) producing 103 yards. Breaux, a redshirt sophomore, emerged with two touchdown grabs.

But he even tied their success to Lee.

“Those guys are athletic and really good players,” he said. “When you have a quarterback that can get it out to you and put it where you want it, it’s all good.”