|Zach Mettenberger on his arm, his mom, his exit from Athens and more|
“I was in the back seat of a truck,” the lanky quarterback recalls of the one night a year ago that every Tiger fan wanted to talk about. The night when things went bad. “Everybody was out. It was my first camp, but it was a tradition. The last night of camp, we all go out and celebrate the end of camp. Getting through it is like freshman initiation; you're finally part of the team. So we all go out, and I'm in the back seat of a truck, and I literally had a front-row view of what went down, and I kept my ass in that truck the whole time and high-tailed it out of there as soon as I could.”
After leaving Shady's Bar, the players returned to the dorm. Even after what happened, some continued to celebrate.
“Y'all don't understand what's going to happen tomorrow,” he told them.
“I've been in trouble. I got arrested in a small town in Georgia, and I was thinking no one was going to find out. The next morning I'm on the front page of the Athens paper, the Atlanta paper, every newspaper.”
This is Zach Mettenberger. And if that night outside Shady's was his first real test as a Tiger, LSU fans are going to love this kid.
When asked to describe himself to someone who has never seen him play, Mettenberger smiles and nods.
“I'm a fiery competitor,” he says. “I hate losing. I don't care if it's Jenga, freakin' jacks, video games, a pick-up game of basketball or the SEC Championship. I'm going to do everything I can to win a game. I guess I get that from my mom.”
His mother, Mettenberger adds, is a redhead.
“She's a firecracker, so to speak,” he says. “I get a lot of my personality from her. I've got a big arm. I can throw it. I feel like I've gotten a lot more accurate, and I'm looking forward to showing people that I can be a precision quarterback and put the ball on the money.”
At 6-foot-5, the gunslinger looks like a traditional throwing quarterback from the days of old, before mobility, the option and pure speed were emphasized at the position.
“I think I'm a lot more athletic than people give me credit for,” he says. “I may not run a 4.6, but I can avoid a rusher and make a throw downfield, or get 10 yards if I have to and get down or get out of bounds.”
The big kid touts his skills because he understands he's been put in the driver's seat of the ride. And not just any ride. Try, if you can, considering how it's woven into our local fabric, to put this into the context of Baton Rouge and Louisiana and the Southeastern Conference, which has won the past six BCS national championships.
He's been given the keys to the LSU offense.
This is no small thing for a player on his second chance at primetime college football success. A star coming out of rural Oconee Country High School outside Athens, Ga., he signed with UGA, where his aforementioned mother still works in the football office. Soon after, he was arrested and kicked off the team, and—well, let's just get to that now.
The paragraph below comes from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, printed after Mettenberger signed with LSU following the 2010 junior-college season:
“(He) was kicked off the Bulldogs' team by head coach Mark Richt last April following his arrest in the South Georgia town of Remerton during spring break. A month later, Mettenberger pleaded guilty to two counts of misdemeanor sexual battery. He was sentenced under the Georgia First Offender Act to 12 months probation, 80 hours of community service, fined $2,000 and banished from Valdosta for a year. Several alcohol-related charges were dismissed in the plea agreement.”
Mettenberger didn't have a lot of options, despite his talent. So he went to Butler Community College in Kansas, a place he could never have imagined living, playing a sport he wasn't sure he still loved because of all that happened.
“I did have my doubts,” Metten berger says. “It made me realize the spotlight I'm in, and I almost didn't want it. I just wanted to be regular Zach, but I took the chance going to JUCO (junior college) instead of working for my dad. My dad drives nails for a living, so hell no. He's a carpenter. I don't want to be a roofer or anything like that the rest of my life, so I said I'll give JUCO a try.”
Butler was good. Mettenberger fell in love with the place and couldn't believe how much he liked playing for Head Coach Troy Morrell and former Offensive Coordinator Aaron Flores. He took the team all the way to the national junior-college championship game, throwing 32 touchdowns and 2,678 total yards in 12 games. He was only intercepted four times.
Mettenberger wanted to keep winning.
“The reason I came to LSU was I wanted to be a part of something bigger and something bigger than myself,” he says. “You never know what can happen, but last year I got an SEC Championship ring, and that's something I'll have 'til the day I die—and it's a story to tell about the great times I had with my teammates that year. That's why I came here over Texas A&M and Ole Miss and Arizona. I wanted to be a winner. And if college is my last time to play football—and I hope it's not—I wanted to do it being a winner. In high school I was never a winner. I lost, like, 27 games, and won, like, 15 or something in high school. Never had a winning record in a season. That's the real reason I came to LSU.”
He came because he wanted to keep winning, yes, but also because he fell in love with the game again. This was thanks in large part to Butler Community College's Flores.
“He was kind of like my dad out there and really took me under his wing,” Mettenberger says. “When I got there, I told him, 'I don't know if I love this game anymore.' And the last thing he told me before I left, he told me, 'I'm just glad you found the love for the game again. That's the biggest thing that I'm proud of, that I could help you achieve while you were out here.'”
You could argue that Zach Mettenberger will be the first LSU quarterback in more than 20 years to go into a season as both the undisputed starter and a bona fide former blue chipper who is a prototypical passing quarterback.
A case could be made about some others, but in reality the last time that happened was with Tommy Hodson. He threw his last pass for LSU 23 seasons ago.
Sure, since then there have been tremendous triumphs and some pretty good quarterbacks, but as the Tigers head into 2012 in the eyes of many experts as the favorite to win it all, LSU fans are dying for a quarterback. A real quarterback.
Because despite last season's 13-0 start and top ranking, all that remained this spring and summer were the remnants of a dysfunctional 21-0 loss to Alabama in the national championship game. The team's quarterback play in that game could not have been worse.
Mettenberger wanted in. That's for sure.
“Sometimes [the BCS championship game] hurt to watch,” he says. “I'm not knocking the two guys ahead of me, because me and Jarrett and Jordan had a great relationship, and I knew I wasn't going against Alabama at the time, but from the sidelines I would see stuff, and I'm doing the read and progression in my head, and I'm saying, 'Throw here,' and sometimes they might throw it to the wrong guy or force something. But overall they did a great job last year. I mean, we were 13-0, and people still want to [expletive] and complain. We're going to do what we have to do to win football games here. That's just how Les Miles is. It's how any coach would be.”
Last season, he was third on the depth chart behind Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee.
“The competitor in me wanted to play every game last year, but we were winning, and we were winning decisively, and I got my chances in games to hand balls off and make a couple of throws, and that was fine for me.”
He took the field in five games and completed 8 of 11 passes for 92 yards and a TD. He ran twice, once for 25 yards. That play is a story that reinforces exactly why fans will love him.
LSU was nearing the end of a 52-3 rout of Ole Miss in its next-to-last regular-season game. On third and 1 from the Ole Miss 26, when Head Coach Les Miles was obviously trying to run out the clock, Mettenberger ran a naked bootleg for 25 yards.
“I kind of called my own play on that one,” he says. “Coach Miles was kind of pissed, but it was a good play at the time. Saved my running back his life.
“I came off the field, and he said, 'What the hell are you doing?' I told him, 'Coach, they blitzed, and I didn't want to get Terrance McGee lit up.'”
The only one who got lit up was Mettenberger, by Miles. After the bootleg, he was ordered to take four knees and turn the ball over.
“I could see where he was coming from,” Mettenberger says. “But at the same time, if it's 7-7 in the fourth quarter, and we're playing Florida in the Swamp, he's going to be loving it. Double-edged sword, I guess.”
“I don't go out as much as I did my freshman year,” Mettenberger says. “I was that guy my freshman year at Georgia. That guy. But I still go out. I'm a college kid.”
Mettenberger was out that night last August when the Tigers were breaking curfew.
Sometime after 1 a.m. there was a well-documented fight outside Shady's that involved, at the least, Jefferson, who was among four Tigers arrested. When the fracas broke out, Mettenberger had flashbacks to his own run-in with trouble.
“I never really thought of myself as a public figure until, shoot, probably right when I got in trouble at Georgia,” he says. “That's when I realized how big a deal I was to some people: an athlete at a university, especially football in the SEC. It's big money, and I had never thought of myself as an athlete or the quarterback of a team or someone who had to be a leader. I just thought of myself as a guy who could throw a football and have fun with it. But going through that trouble made me realize—and I'm not saying this in a cocky way like I'm better than someone else—but I have a lot more to lose than your average Joe.”
He did lose it. A scholarship, a spot on the team he'd grown up watching.
Mettenberger had just turned 18.
“Yeah,” he says. “I lost it all.”
Suddenly this big kid who idolized and tried to emulate the Patriots' Tom Brady, dipped tobacco, drove a pickup in high school—“Oh, yeah. Ram 1500. 2001. White. Hand-me down”—was nationally known for all the wrong reasons.
So when the consequences of the Shady's fight came down from the coaches, Mettenberger was ready.
“The next day, the hammer dropped,” he says. “We were with (strength coach Tommy) Moffitt, and he was running us to death. It was really miserable. But in a sense it brought us closer as a team, and it was kind of an us-against-the world kind of thing.
“The guys who were in it, they know who they are, and they made a mistake. But it was almost like, as soon as that happened, no one gave us a chance to win seven games, and we wanted to go out there and prove to everybody we're still a good team, and we're going to put up some points and knock people in the mouth. Thirteen-and-oh later, and no one was talking about the Shady's fight, really. It was a fun ride last year, and hopefully this year can be even better.”
Wearing baggy jeans, shoes that looked like slippers and a bushy beard, Mettenberger made his recruiting visit to LSU looking like an overly relaxed college kid who happens to own a gun of an arm.
He loves listening to music and hanging out with his buddies. Back in the spring, he visited friends in Tuscaloosa, and no one gave him grief for the championship loss to the Tide.
“But I go back to my hometown of Athens, Georgia, and go out, I may as well have killed the damn president,” he says.
“That's my hometown, and people give me more grief.”
That's what he gets at home for screwing up as a Bulldog and for now leading the Tigers in a region gone mad for college football.
“It's just how it is,” he says. “It's what I signed up for, to be honest. I want that notoriety, but I still want to be the same Zach—the sarcastic, goofy, funny guy I've always been—and go out there and compete every day and have fun with my friends and teammates.”
All that is okay, but that's just not his reality anymore. The spotlight is white-hot, and maybe his attitude and openness can give off the wrong impression.
“Some people call me cocky, but you ask Tom Brady how he feels about his abilities, and he's going to say, 'I'm one of the best. There are a lot of things I need to work on, but I still feel like I'm one of the best in the business,' and I feel the same,” Mettenberger says. “I want to go out there this year and show what I can do and win a bunch of football games. There are things I need to keep working on to refine my game, but I feel like I can compete and go against anybody if I have to.”
LSU hasn't played a game yet in 2012, and Mettenberger has made precious few throws in Tiger Stadium, but if you've read this far, I know you already love this kid.
Here's another thing fans are going to love. Mettenberger says this will be the tightest group of Tigers ever.
“I'm not knocking the guys from last year, but I've taken my offensive line out to dinner, and the guys last year never did that,” he says. “I've taken all the receivers out to dinner. When we play basketball, me and all the receivers get together, some of the linemen, too. We all try to do stuff together now instead of doing our own thing. I think that's helped a lot. We read each other's personalities better off the field, and I feel like that translates better to on the field. I think we're going to surprise people with our chemistry and timing as a receiving corps and me throwing the ball to them.”
Earlier this year, senior receiver Russell Shepard tweeted that this season would be “an airshow” with Mettenberger under center.
But the quarterback knows his place and the importance of a balanced offense.
Accordingly, he's fine with LSU continuing to be a run-first, pass-second football team.
“If you have six running backs who can start anywhere in the country, you're going to run the ball. You have linemen who average 6-4, 310 across the board, you're gonna run the ball. I think this year we're going to mix it up. It's not all about one guy and stats; it's about what the collective offense can do.”
Love him yet?
Mettenberger has been through a lot, but he's learned from his mistakes and setbacks every step of the way. He appears poised. For the spotlight. For the scrutiny. For game time.
“Everything's worked out perfectly,” he says without a hint of irony. “I'll get this year and another year to be a starting quarterback of a big SEC team. That's been my dream since I was a little kid, and hopefully I can go out there and lead our team to a national championship this year.”
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