The day Zach Mettenberger became a quarterback was the day he wondered when he would get to play again.
He had been riding the bench at Oconee County High School, but midway through a game midway through his sophomore season, he finally got his chance.
His team hadn’t crossed the 50-yard line all game, so Mettenberger went in at quarterback about five minutes before halftime. He led a length-of-the-field drive that ended in a fumbled reception at the 5 but, after a punt, his team got the ball back.
“Zach goes 5-for-5 on the next drive and throws a bullet for a touchdown and we go up 7-0,” Bernie Mettenberger said. “I go to the concession stand (and) a couple of other (players’) fathers say, ‘Look’s like we’ve got us a quarterback.’ ”
But in the second half, Zach was back on the bench. When the Mettenbergers returned home, Bernie found his son sitting quietly in his dark bedroom, a tear running down his face.
“He said, ‘Dad, what have I got to do?’ ” Bernie Mettenberger recalled. “I said, ‘You’ve just got to work your tail off.’
“He’s been a quarterback ever since.”
They say to whom much is given, much is expected. For Zach Mettenberger, much has been expected but little has been given — unless of course you count prototypical quarterback size (6-foot-5, 230 pounds).
He had to wait his turn at Oconee County. He had to begin a battle with Aaron Murray to be the quarterback at Georgia that ended when he was dismissed from the team, then make it through a season at Butler (Kan.) Community College before waiting his turn again as an understudy last season to Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee at LSU.
“Nobody has ever given Zach anything,” Bernie Mettenberger said. “It’s never been, ‘You’re so-and-so; your dad is the biggest booster’ — something like that. Everything he’s gotten, he worked his tail off to get.”
When he was a boy, Zach came up with a list of career goals that his mother, Tammy, said he kept on a board. Sometimes the order got rearranged, but the list always involved football. And it always included being a starting quarterback in the Southeastern Conference.
“That’s all he ever wanted,” Bernie Mettenberger said.
There were those around him who outright told Zach he would never make it.
Bernie Mettenberger said one of his son’s high school baseball coaches told Zach that the only kind of college scholarship he would get would be a HOPE scholarship — Georgia’s version of TOPS. There were catcalls and taunts when he was a Little League pitcher and even when hanging out with friends back home in Watkinsville, Ga., just outside Athens and about an hour east of Atlanta.
Zach intentionally doesn’t spend much time there anymore. Instead of returning to Watkinsville over Christmas break, Mettenberger stayed with an aunt and uncle in Scottsboro, Ala., before coming to Atlanta to begin preparations for Monday’s Chick-fil-A Bowl against Clemson (6:30 p.m., ESPN).
Both parents say Zach now considers Baton Rouge his true hometown.
“When he comes back (to Watkinsville), he misses” Baton Rouge, said Tammy Mettenberger, who works in the Georgia football office. “He’s only here a few days and says, ‘I’m glad I’m not staying a full week. I need to be back at my home.’ ”
“He loves it there,” Bernie Mettenberger said. “He really does. Obviously things didn’t work out at Georgia. I think I pushed him more toward Georgia than I should have.
“But he’s at home (at LSU). He’s where he loves to be. He’s met a lot of great people there.”
Mettenberger has no plans to change his address — not in the next year or so, anyway.
While a number of LSU players are considering turning pro after this season — a list that includes such prominent Tigers as defensive ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo, free safety Eric Reid, running back Spencer Ware and middle linebacker Kevin Minter (an Atlanta-area native) — Mettenberger has given the subject little thought.
When asked Wednesday whether he was definitely returning for his senior season, Mettenberger was taken aback.
“Who, me?” he said. “I don’t know of too many teams who are going to want to draft a guy who threw for 11 touchdowns and 2,500 yards. I’m definitely coming back for my senior year.”
“We didn’t even talk about it a whole lot,” Tammy Mettenberger said. “He always wanted to have two or three years starting in college. Even if he had the best year ever, we knew it was no question he was coming back for his senior year.”
Mettenberger was part of last season’s SEC championship team as a backup, but no doubt he would like to win an SEC title as a starter. The national championship of course is on his goal board as well, as is winning the Heisman Trophy.
Throughout his athletic career, people have questioned whether Mettenberger possesses the inner drive to be that good. His low-key, monotone demeanor often fools people and conceals what his father describes as a strong desire to win.
As a backup last season, Mettenberger kept his leadership skills in check. But teammates, such as center P.J. Lonergan, said he changed leading into spring practice this year, exerting a take-charge attitude on the field.
“Even if he throws a perfect ball and it’s below the waist to a receiver, he gets mad about it,” said Jarvis Landry, LSU’s leading receiver with 52 catches. “He strives to keep the ball chest-high and give us a chance to make the play. It’s the small details he goes into when he comes to work every day. He demands a lot of us.”
“He’s a little bit of a perfectionist,” coach Les Miles said. “He wants it to work and work well. I think it’s helped the chemistry of the passing game.”
After two months struggling behind a badly banged-up offensive line, Mettenberger had the best month of his season in November. He threw for more than 200 yards in LSU’s final four games after eclipsing that mark just twice in the first eight, including a season-high 298 yards against No. 2 Alabama.
It is, Mettenberger hopes, only the beginning. Even if Ware turns pro, LSU will return most of its key offensive pieces for 2013, including former starting tailback Alfred Blue and top left tackle Chris Faulk, both out with injuries.
Miles has said it could be the best offense he has had at LSU, optimism that starts with Mettenberger’s ability to deliver. For Mettenberger, that starts virtually as soon as he gets back “home” to Baton Rouge.
“The main thing he told me is, ‘Dad, if there’s not something I need to be doing, I’m going to be in the film room studying and studying and studying,’ ” Bernie Mettenberger said. “He still has a lot to work on. He wants to get stronger and to increase his pocket awareness.”
Zach Mettenberger said it’s about the work you do when no one is looking, when no one is requiring him to report to the LSU football complex.
“It’s about who gets out there and watches extra film and doing (passing) drops by yourself,” Mettenberger said. “That’s what ultimately makes you the best athlete you can be.”
Ultimately, it could bring him a lot closer to checking more goals off his board.
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