If there was any suspense left in Tulane’s quarterback competition, it disappeared Tuesday.
As expected, Green Wave coach Curtis Johnson formally announced Nick Montana will start for Tulane when it opens the season against Jackson State at 7 p.m. Thursday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
The junior transfer will make his first Division I start since Nov. 19, 2011, when he led the Washington Huskies to a 38-21 loss at Oregon State as a redshirt freshman. Since then, Montana played one season at Mount San Antonio College in Walnut, Calif., before joining the Green Wave over the winter.
After a prolonged competition to replace four-year starter Ryan Griffin, Montana beat out a pair of New Orleans products in former O. Perry Walker standout Devin Powell and recent Jesuit graduate Tanner Lee.
During spring practice and into the early days of preseason camp, coach Curtis Johnson said he expected the depth-chart battle to continue through August and possibly even the first few games of the season. However, Montana climbed to the top of the ranks quickly, earning the majority of first-team snaps by the middle of camp, allowing Tulane’s staff to name a starter before the season opener.
“You always want to be able to announce your starter and make sure it’s cut and dry if someone clearly wins the job, and I think he did,” offensive coordinator Eric Price said. “He is a guy who is going to lead us through things. We wanted to make sure it was right, so we kept them competing, which I believe will pay off in the long run. But right now, we’re all in agreement with how camp transpired, and we picked one guy.”
While Montana will be the first quarterback used Thursday night, it doesn’t mean he’ll be the only one. There is a plan in place to hand Powell the offense for at least one drive, but Price said he’s still determining the best way to implement him.
“It’s one of the hardest things, and I’ve done it before, to say you’re going to put a backup in and don’t specifically say when,” Price said. “In the heat of the battle, you kind of don’t want to do it. So we still have to meet on it and make a firm decision. But we expect to use another quarterback, and we’ll know exactly what to do before the game starts.”
Despite earning the coaches’ praise in camp, Lee is likely behind Powell, although Johnson didn’t want to discuss putting a redshirt on the true freshman this season.
“I love what (Lee) did in fall camp,” Johnson said. “He was phenomenal some days. He just needs to learn right now. I don’t want to put Tanner in a situation where he will hurt himself.”
Ultimately, the offense belongs to Montana. Teammates and coaches have lauded his quick feet, ability to scramble out of the pocket and consistently connect with open receivers for first downs, particularly on intermediate to short-range throws.
Yet what impressed Johnson even more was Montana’s ability to naturally grow into the role of starting quarterback, transforming from a quiet newcomer to comfortable signal-caller in just eight months.
“He just doesn’t call the plays,” Johnson said. “He calls the plays and tells a guy, ‘Hey, be careful. Here comes the slant. I’m throwing the slant to you.’ Just things like that. He gets guys lined up better than the other guys, and he does a better job of seeing the blitz and a better job with protection.”
Although Montana emerged as a clear winner in the competition, several of Tulane’s offensive players said the lingering uncertainty paid off by ensuring no one became complacent as camp dragged on. But when it was time to name a starter, the choice was unanimous.
“I didn’t mind that the coaches didn’t want to name him the starter until now because it kept everyone on their toes, but we all pretty much knew,” senior center Zach Morgan said. “It’s well deserved that (Montana) is the starter. He puts in the extra work and is always up to study things that haven’t gone right and trying to get in every extra rep that he can.
“There’s a command he’s got right now of the huddle that we’ve been looking for, and you can see it now right when he comes in. He’s not mumbling the plays out. He’s confident, and he knows the best play and even calls over to the receivers to tell them what’s coming. It’s just nice to know he’s so confident in what he’s doing.”