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'Zach and the Fab Five' ready for show

3/29/2012

Zach and the Fabulous Five.

It sounds like an opening act at one of the side stages at New Orleans' Jazz Fest. Or maybe it resembles a nickname for one of the teams in Louisiana this weekend for the Final Four.

It's none of those, but this act will be very much on the state's main stage Saturday -- at least from an LSU fan's perspective -- even with the Final Four happening on the same day, a mere hour down the road.

New LSU starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger and his cast of receivers -- the self-named "Fab Five" -- will have their first truly public exhibition with Saturday's LSU spring game at Tiger Stadium at 12:30 p.m. CT. They come with the promise that the Tigers will open up an offense that many fans feel has been far too conservative, never more so than in LSU's last game, a 21-0 loss to Alabama in the BCS Championship game Jan. 9.

"We want to go out there and have fun and showcase our offense, how different it is from last year," Mettenberger said Tuesday, the last day players were allowed to speak to the media before the spring game. "It's not completely different, but just the little things we do different."

That's been all the talk throughout the spring. With departed seniors Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee under center, LSU chose to stay conservative on offense in recent years, often to the point of frustration for fans.

There was the first half without a first down against Georgia in the SEC championship game as the Tigers opted to keep things close to the vest while its dominant defense kept them in the game. In the second half, LSU was able to pull away. There was the frustration of eight quarters, plus an overtime, with no touchdowns against Alabama, including the 9-6, regular-season win in overtime.

And there was the BCS shutout where LSU managed just five first downs and 92 yards of offense while attempting just 17 mostly safe and innocuous passes.

For most of the season, LSU would slick out of pedestrian offensive performances with big plays by defense and special teams to turn mediocre offensive numbers into big points.

But it finally caught up to the Tigers in the title game. There were no big returns on special teams, no pick-sixes and the Crimson Tide was not going to allow for gifts. And the fan frustration with the offense, quelled by the overall positive results, boiled to the surface.

Since that day, there has been a constant promise for change this year. It starts with Mettenberger, the former Georgia backup who was kicked off the Bulldogs team, who matriculated to Butler Community College for a year before spending last season as the understudy to the two LSU seniors.

But he was an understudy with promise. He once challenged Aaron Murray, a more productive quarterback than either of of the LSU pair, for the starting job at Georgia. He has Jefferson's large build (6-foot-5, 222 pounds), but Lee's quick release. And, if you believe what you hear, he throws a more accurate, catchable ball than either. But that's been hard to evaluate because his playing time came largely in mop-up duty.

Now a junior, he has been hyped as an improvement in the passing game since pretty much right after the BCS title game and before he has ever take the field for a Division I college start.

Here's what head coach Les Miles said just a couple of days after the BCS game: "We'll throw the ball more. We have to replace a guy (Jefferson) who could scramble, but we'll throw the football for a greater percentage."

Then came February and tweets from LSU's returning receivers -- none who had more than 475 receiving yards last year. That the core group, which includes senior Russell Shepard, juniors Kadron Boone and James Wright and sophomores Odell Beckham, Jr., and Jarvis Landry, would be the "Fab Five" in the passing game. Even with its most productive receiver, Rueben Randle, headed to the NFL, Tigers receivers are displaying swagger.

"We want to play with an edge (for new receivers coach Adam Henry)," Shepard explained.

And then came spring practice and complaints, specifically from the defense that they weren't making as many plays at practice against an improved LSU passing offense.

"The passing game is a lot better," safety Eric Reid declared while saying he was getting frustrated that Mettenberger wasn't throwing more balls that could be picked.

"I'm glad he's frustrated," Mettenberger said. "That means they're not picking me off."

And then came the statistics from the scrimmage last week. Mettenberger completed 16 of 25 passes for 177 yards, three touchdowns and, notably, no interceptions.

"I think we are competing in the passing game very, very well," Miles said after the scrimmage. "I think Mettenberger is a real leader there and he enjoys his role."

All of that is great. But when Zach and the Fab Five have put in their work, it's been behind the privacy fence that surrounds the practice football fields or inside the metal walls of the indoor facility. The only scrimmage of the spring so far was held in a closed-to-the-public Tiger stadium. With Thursday's open-to-students exception, practices are open only to media for 25-minute snippets.

It's all been a big tease, building up the appetite for what's on stage, finally, for public consumption Saturday.

"People will see on Saturday how different it is, really," Mettenberger said. "It will be the first time for people to see us. When the media is out there, you can see us for the first (25) minutes and you really don't see the offense working, how we're going to do tempo, first-and-10, second and third and all that stuff.

"So it's going to be fun to go out there and showcase how different our offense is."