At the ripe old age of 20, Zach Mettenberger surprised himself. TheLSU quarterback figured out the person he had become by going through a season like he’d never experienced in his football life.
The strong-armed Georgia kid overflowing with potential was a spectator as the 2011 Tigers pieced together one of the most dominant regular seasons in college football history. A strange thing happened as Mettenberger stood and watched LSU roar to a 13–0 regular season that was capped by a dominating 42–10 win over Georgia — his former school — in the SEC Championship Game.
He enjoyed the ride.
“As a competitor, you always want to play and it definitely hurt to not play as much as I wanted,” says Mettenberger, who appeared in only five games in 2011. “But it made me realize I was patient, and I’m a better team player than I realized I could be.
“Not being the guy for the first time in my life, it showed me no matter how much you’re playing, you have to be supportive of your teammates and that the team is bigger than you. You play the game to win and be a part of something special.”
This is the same Mettenberger who in his freshman season at Georgia in 2009 showed up as a brash 18-year-old who had literally grown up in the Bulldogs’ program?
Yep. And it was also the same Mettenberger whose life on and off the field took an abrupt and potentially irreversible detour on March 7, 2010, when he was arrested and charged with a series of misdemeanors, including two counts of sexual battery after he fondled a female patron at a bar in Remerton, Ga.
His attorney pled the case out, and Mettenberger received two concurrent 12-month probation sentences. But Georgia coach Mark Richt — close to the family for years, due to the fact that Mettenberger’s mother Tammy had been a longtime administrative aide in the football office — had no choice but to kick Mettenberger out of the program.
Just that quickly, a promising career that had kicked into high gear during Georgia’s spring practice when Mettenberger battled Aaron Murray for the starting job was in serious jeopardy.
“My plan at Georgia was to be the starter for four years,” Mettenberger says matter-of-factly.
“I’m not going to lie. I was really devastated when it was all going down. At one point, I thought I should just give up and quit playing football and go work for my dad and work construction the rest of my life. It took me a while to realize I didn’t want to drive nails for a living. I wanted to play football. I had to realize the sun was coming up on the horizon and that I just had to get through the hard times.”
So Mettenberger got back on his football feet.
Instead of transferring to another Division I program and sitting out another full season (he redshirted in 2009), the one-time rising star went the junior college route and wound up at Butler Community College, tucked away in El Dorado, Kan. Out of the spotlight, Mettenberger rebuilt his image and revived his career. He passed for 2,678 yards and 32 touchdowns, often sitting out second halves as the Grizzles marched to the NJCAA national championship game.
Like Cam Newton the year before, Mettenberger was a hot commodity on the recruiting trail after the 2010 season. He landed at LSU, in part because the Tigers’ coaches were dogged in their pursuit, but more so because of the chance he saw with LSU.
A second chance, but also a chance to be the leader of a program on the cusp of winning a national championship or two while he was on campus.
While Mettenberger was toiling in El Dorado, LSU was plowing through an 11–2 season that culminated with a rout against Texas A&M at the Cotton Bowl. Entering the 2011 campaign, the two quarterbacks who had taken almost every snap since the Tigers’ 2007 BCS National Championship season were seniors. And neither Jordan Jefferson nor Jarrett Lee had ever really distinguished himself as an elite SEC signal-caller, giving Mettenberger the hope he could step in and play right away.
“I wanted the opportunity to play with them and more than anything I wanted to be a winner,” Mettenberger says. “LSU was a great opportunity for me to come to a powerhouse, and I wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself where I could play for a winner.
“Anywhere you go you’re going to have to compete to get on the field, and that didn’t scare me at all. I came with the attitude that I was going to start every game last year. It didn’t work out that way because Coach (Les) Miles had a different plan, and that was fine with me. We were 13–1 and I had a great time with my teammates.”
Many of those teammates are back in 2012, and for the first time since 2006 and ’07, the Tigers will be led by an NFL-caliber quarterback.
LSU quarterbacks coach Steve Kragthorpe says there’s no question Mettenberger can take that quantum leap into elite status.
“The biggest thing with Zach, he’s very accurate on deep balls,” Kragthorpe says. “He’s got a big arm. He’s going to make the throws outside the numbers on the hash. He’s learning to become a better passer. Everybody knows he can throw the football, but there’s not a lot of guys who can pass it. His fundamentals have gotten a lot better, and he’s throwing better passes and more catchable balls.
“The one word that always comes to mind with Zach is ‘competitive.’ He loves playing the game, and he’s very hard on himself. I didn’t see that as much last year because he wasn’t getting the same number of snaps and he wasn’t the guy. It’s there now because he wants to succeed and he wants this team to win.”
What was also camouflaged last fall as Mettenberger developed patience and waited for his turn was how much he was learning every day during practice. As the No. 3 quarterback, he often drew the task of working against the Tigers’ physical, aggressive and nasty first-unit defense.
Not only did that fuel the competitive juices, but it also forced Mettenberger to improve. Understandably, the 6'5", 222-pound gunslinger’s confidence is as high as ever after a spring as the Tigers’ leading man.
“When the lights are on and the cameras are on me, that’s when I think I’ll perform the best,” he says. “I’ve prepared myself to be the best quarterback I can be and I think I definitely have the talent and want-to to be one of the best quarterbacks in the country and I hope my hard work pays off this season.
“I like the pressure. It feeds me and keeps me motivated every day.”
Sliding into the driver’s seat of an LSU offense that has had its ups and downs the last four years has also thrust Mettenberger into the role of a leader, something he has embraced.
He talked about scrutiny not affecting him, about understanding the microscope a big-time college quarterback operates under and — perhaps most important — about staying level-headed and making the right decisions on and off the field.
“Whether you want to be or not, when you’re the quarterback at LSU, you’re one of the faces of the program,” Mettenberger says. “I have to play that part well.”
So far, so good.
“He’s become a very good leader for our football team,” Kragthorpe says. “He’s embraced the idea that the quarterback has to be the leader, and he knows that people are going to look at him differently.”
Makes sense, because after a difficult road to get this far, Mettenberger is different, even more than he realized when his redirected road led him to Baton Rouge.
“To finally get my shot, I’m really excited for this and I’ve been working my tail off for it,” he says.
“What I’ve been through made me realize I can’t take it for granted. It made me appreciate what I do every day and who I get to hang out with. It reminds me I can’t screw this up because I may never get this opportunity again.”
This story appeared in Athlon's 2012 SEC Preview Annual.
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