HOOVER, Ala . — As he prepared to face the inquisitive hordes at Southeastern Conference Media Days on Thursday morning, the man who knows how to audible against bloodthirsty SEC defenses was looking for help to properly fold his purple handkerchief.
“Anyone know how to make a pocket square?” LSU’s Zach Mettenberger asked.
He eventually figured it out, looking collegiately stylish with his matching tie and hankie, short-cropped hair and full beard. (No mustache, but more on that later.)
Before his rounds were over, he was pretending to do magic tricks with that handkerchief, just to be playful and amusing.
Is there a trick at work here? Has someone made the old Mettenberger disappear and replaced him with a new, more laid-back, dare it be said cooler version?
The answer, straight from the Mett’s mouth, is yes.
“I’m just more comfortable,” he said. “You can’t tell? I’m just more loose. Not as nervous. I learned a lot of tough lessons last year, but a lot of good ones.”
A year ago, Mettenberger shipped out to SEC Media Days as the new poster boy for the LSU football program.
He filled his role admirably, but there was a tension to his words and deeds at times on the field and with reporters. He frequently didn’t suffer media fools gladly and seemed to struggle under the weight of a fan base that labeled him “The Mett-siah” before he even took a meaningful snap as a Tiger.
He’s still sarcastic. Asked whether he thinks Georgia fans — once his fans — will cheer for him when LSU plays there Sept. 28, he replied, “Sure, they’ll be like, ‘Yeah, Zach.’ No, they’re going to boo ... me.”
He can still be pointed. Asked about the changes new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron is making in his game, Mettenberger replied: “Nothing totally dramatic. It’s not like I’m Tim Tebow and have terrible mechanics. It’s just a lot of little things we’ve been working on.”
But he embraced the need to be a better quarterback, a better team leader, a better spokesman. He said he would be different even if Greg Studrawa, now again solely serving as LSU’s offensive line coach, were still offensive coordinator.
“You would still see a totally different Zach on the field,” he said. “That comes with a guy going from his first to his second year playing.”
Clearly though Cameron, whom Mettenberger said he has come to regard as a fatherly figure, has played a major part in Zach Version 2.0.
“Now I get to work with a guy who has the pedigree he has, a Super Bowl ring and the Pro Bowlers he’s worked with,” Mettenberger said. “He’s definitely made me work like a pro quarterback.”
That’s no idle talk. As a fifth-year senior — Mettenberger is in his third year at LSU after a year at Georgia and another at Butler (Kan.) Community College — Mettenberger needs only three hours to graduate in December.
He is taking one online course to complete his degree requirements. He could take more, but SEC Executive Associate Commissioner Greg Sankey said Thursday a student-athlete may take less than the usual 12 hours to maintain eligibility if that’s all he needs to graduate.
“I’ll be in the football operations building every day,” Mettenberger said. “I think (Cameron) is going to prepare me to play better this year.”
And next year, when Mettenberger hopes he has parlayed success at LSU into an NFL roster spot. It’s the little things that separate good college players from the pros, and it’s the little things Mettenberger said Cameron is correcting in his game.
“Where I put my toe when I throw, how I hitch forward when I get to the top of my drop,” he said. “How I keep my eyes focused downfield and progress through a play.”
Mettenberger said one of the best parts of his relationship with Cameron is how he accepts him even when his hair is shaggier and he has a beard.
Whether his mustache, or rather the Mett-stache, that became such a sensation last year will make an appearance this season was one question Mettenberger couldn’t answer.
“I felt the stache was its own person, and I was just its right-hand man,” he said. “I’m definitely a guy who likes to play around with his looks. Some people didn’t appreciate it. So we’ll see.”
LSU coach Les Miles is heading Monday to Bristol, Conn., to make his run through the ESPN “car wash.”
All 14 SEC coaches will appear across multiple ESPN platforms Monday or Tuesday. They will be on “SportsCenter,” “College Football Live,” “First Take” and “Highly Questionable” on television; “The Herd with Colin Cowherd,” “SVP & Russillo,” “Coach and Company” and “SportsCenter Tonight” on ESPN Radio; and chats and podcasts on ESPN.com.