It was a crock pot-hot August day at the LSU football complex, and the Tigers’ practice was melting into a comedy of errors.
“We were messing up a lot,” senior tailback Alfred Blue said. “I guess it was too hot out there. Everyone was ready to get inside.”
Suddenly, Zach Mettenberger spoke up.
“He said, ‘We’ve gotta do it,’ ” Blue recalled. “ ‘We can’t run from it. There’s no easy way.
“We might as well as suck it up and do it right.’ ”
After two years at LSU and a year as the Tigers starting quarterback, Mettenberger and his teammates say he is finally finding his depth as a leader.
Blue said he has seen the change in Mettenberger, and he likes what he’s seen.
“At the beginning of last season he didn’t say a lot,” said Blue, who sat out most of the 2012 season with a knee injury. “But since I came back he’s been speaking up more. Everyone’s rallied around him.
“Everybody,” Blue said, “wants to be led.”
As the LSU Tigers begin to pen the pages of their 2013 season Saturday night against TCU, much of the focus has been on all the young players who will have to replace the 11 early departures for the NFL draft.
If not that, it’s been the polarizing self-inflicted saga of sophomore running back Jeremy Hill. His videotaped sucker-punch of a young man outside a campus bar in April, coming after he pled guilty to carnal knowledge of a juvenile while a player at Redemptorist, has drawn fans and pundits into “Throw the rascal out” or “Win at all costs” orbits.
Through it all, Mettenberger has been the constant. He didn’t bolt for the NFL but stayed for his senior year. He also stayed away from any more of the negative headlines that got him banished from Georgia’s football program and eventually landed him here.
Mettenberger is a working man without portfolio now. He needs to take but one 3-hour online class to graduate this fall and maintain his eligibility.
While it isn’t an existence that embodies the true spirit of the term “student-athlete,” it has given Mettenberger the time to become more a student of the game.
He spent his summer not back home in Watkinsville, Ga., just outside of Athens, or doing any Johnny Football-like jetsetting. Instead, he was at LSU’s football complex, watching film, learning at the foot of new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, then watching more film.
It has been an intense, concentrated learning process between LSU’s new Jedi master and his young apprentice.
“Basically, we’re trying to work with his feet, his body posture, his knee flex and where his eyes are,” Cameron said (gee, Cam, that’s all?). “Once you get a guy’s eyes squared away, that allows his mind to work, to make correct decisions, and that translates to his feet.”
What he’s seen of Mettenberger in their eight months together has impressed Cameron, late of the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens.
“There’s no throw this kid can’t make,” Cameron said. “None. I don’t like to make comparisons, but he throws a lot like (Ravens quarterback) Joe Flacco. I wouldn’t say he is Joe Flacco. I wouldn’t say he’s anybody. But he’s got an arm. It just needs to go where we want it to go when we want it to go there.”
If he’s going to lead, Mettenberger figures, it had better not just be with an attaboy or a sharp word. It had better be by example, the example of working as hard or harder than anyone on the team.
“Guys know who I am on and off the field,” Mettenberger said.
The guy Mettenberger’s teammates know hasn’t changed that much.
He still likes to sneak away from the LSU film room for the guilty pleasure of a strawberry frosted Dunkin Donuts donut. “The kind Homer Simpson likes,” Mettenberger explains. He still occasionally sizes up questions from reporters as though he were trying to figure out if they were a poisonous snake (the question or the questioner).
But there is a different calmness to Mettenberger as he enters his final college campaign. Perhaps it’s the knowledge that he’s clocked enough time in practice and film study and in games to earn the right to lead an entire team — on his terms.
“I always considered myself a serious leader of this team,” he said. “It took me a year to find my game again, find my rhythm. Hopefully, we can come out of the gates running.”
Connor Neighbors, the backup senior fullback who has become as close as anyone to Mettenberger during his time at LSU, expects greatness from his friend this season.
“We’ve only seen glimpses so far,” Neighbors promised.
It’s funny, but no one seems to refer to Mettenberger as the Mett-siah anymore.
Funny, because that’s what he is more than ever. If LSU is to overcome critical points of youth and inexperience over the course of a diabolically demanding 12-game schedule, it will because Mettenberger will have led them there.
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