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Insider

Mettenberger cool under pressure

7/23/2012

Last Wednesday, Zach Mettenberger was one cool, confident quarterback facing the pressure.

With a blitz of reporters -- a "microphone graveyard," he called it -- in his face as one of the headline players at SEC media days, he fired well-thought out, calm answers like a quarterback delivering strikes against a constant pass-rush.

Asked about the pressure put on him this season to perform as LSU's new starting quarterback, Mettenberger calmly shrugged, "I just have to take care of my one-eleventh of the offense. I have to minimize turnovers and get the ball to the playmakers on our team."

Asked about the issues that led to his departure from Georgia in 2009 (he pled guilty to two misdemeanor counts of sexual battery for groping a woman in a bar), he didn't even wait for the specific incident to come up.

"I definitely showed signs of immaturity in my past," he said before he was ever asked about it. "There's no doubt about it. It's funny, in life you have to learn from your experiences. You mature every day. I've matured slower than some people, but I think I've finally got it right."

Question after question, he handled with calmness, an easy smile and straight-forward answers that didn't dodge issues, but instead suggested they have been dealt with. He was prepared, releaxed and, more often than not, on the money.

That's not as easy as it seems. When you combine his past transgressions, his current hype and the load he carries going forward, and Mettenberger's story is alive with themes of redemption, promising talent and pressure-packed expectations.

He's the guy who was kicked off Georgia's team and eventually made his way back to the SEC at LSU after a year at Butler Community College. Don't think for a second this is the last time you'll hear about that. He's also blessed with an NFL body and a rifle of an arm, one many onlookers said was the strongest among the college quarterbacks at last week's Manning Passing Academy. That ability, which didn't earn him significant playing time as a sophomore backing up two seniors last season, has made him perhaps the most talked about player in college football who has yet to start a Division I game.

And, he's LSU's hope to a completed puzzle. The Tigers are coming off one of the best college football regular seasons in recent memories, going 13-0 (including an SEC championship game blowout of Georgia) against an all-comers schedule using a mix of suffocating defense, dominant special teams and ball-control, turnover-free offense.

It all came tumbling down in the BCS national championship game, however, when the Tigers, unable or unwilling to open up the air attack with senior quarterback Jordan Jefferson in a rematch against Alabama (LSU won a 9-6 slugfest in the regular season), managed just five first down in a 21-0 loss.

Mettenberger, who watched the entire BCS game and most of the season from the sidelines as the third stringer, is the guy with the responsibility of changing the dynamic of the entire offense. Most think LSU's defense and running game could be better than a season ago. The "Mett-siah" as some are already calling the new quarterback is supposed to give them the passing game to push it over the top.

That's what LSU was selling at Media Days.

"He's got one of the stronger arms I've ever seen," said wide receiver Odell Beckham, Jr., the leading returning receiver for the Tigers. "We'll be able to go four wide, five wide, and just throw the ball around."

"The reality is he throws the ball extremely well," head coach Les Miles said. "He makes all the throws. So, you know, we're going to take advantage of some of those secondaries that want to come up and crowd the front and really try to stop the run."

While Miles is quick to defend his quarterbacks of the last four years -- the Jefferson and Jarrett Lee rotation that he noted led the SEC in pass efficiency -- the BCS title game clearly showed the level of confidence LSU had in the pass. Despite being behind most of the game and seeing its run game stuffed, Jefferson attempted only 17, mostly conservative, passes.

That era's over. A new one is set to begin with a guy who wasn't ever supposed to be in Baton Rouge. A native Georgian, he signed with the home-state Bulldogs and, after a redshirt season, competed with Aaron Murray for the starting job when he was dismissed from the team in April of 2010.

LSU had brought in two quarterbacks in 2009, but one of them, Russell Shepard, was eventually moved to wide receiver . In 2010, the Tigers signed highly-touted Texas quarterback Zach Lee, who was subsequently drafted in the first round of the baseball draft and signed by the Los Angeles Dodgers.

So after Mettenberger spent his 2010 fall throwing for 2,678 yards and 32 touchdowns while tucked away at Butler, the road to Baton Rouge was paved: LSU had a near desperate need for a QB of the future and Mettenberger had a desire to be back among the SEC elite. He was there, among the elite, on Wednesday, at center stage.

"It's been a long time coming," he said, "and I've taken the path less traveled by most guys."

At media day, at least, he looked perfectly at home with where the path has taken him.