Connor Neighbors’ tactic to prepare LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger ahead of an awkward homecoming against Georgia at first registers as far from admirable.
Two years ago, the recently transferred Mettenberger and Neighbors, then a freshman walk-on fullback, stood on the sidelines of the Georgia Dome as fans showered him with insults during the Tigers’ 42-10 drubbing of the Bulldogs during the Southeastern Conference Championship Game.
Neither of the friends, who were roommates for the better part of three seasons, delve into details of the heckling heaped upon Mettenberger, who was dismissed from Georgia in 2010 before resurrecting his career over the past two seasons in Baton Rouge.
Yet Neighbors filed away the vile words. And at some point this week, Neighbors will let them roll off his tongue when Mettenberger least expects to hear them.
“I’m just remembering all that they said and heckle over the week to get him ready,” Neighbors said. “I’m just going to talk smack all week long, just so he can drown it out.”
And with a friends like that, what else could Mettenberger ask for when he faces 92,000 fans at 2:30 p.m. Saturday when No. 6 LSU (4-0, 2-0 SEC) travels to No. 9 Georgia (2-1, 1-0) at Sanford Stadium?
“I’m looking forward to Sunday morning,” Mettenberger said Monday night.
The entire story line is quietly loathed by the senior. The narrative is too well-crafted for the 22-year-old to dodge. Instead, it will be a nationally televised SEC passion play — one where his past is fodder for the Georgia faithful and 600 credentialed media members on hand.
“There’s just so much put into this game that has nothing to do with the game, what goes (on) between the snap and the whistle,” said Mettenberger, who arrived at LSU after a one-year stop at Butler County (Kan.) Community College.
Mettenberger’s loathing of the plot is known in Athens, too. On Tuesday, Mettenberger texted Georgia tight end and close friend Arthur Lynch, lamenting LSU reporters asking questions about his mother, who has worked as a secretary since 1999 in the Bulldogs’ football office.
“That’s my boy, man,” Lynch told Georgia reporters. “I was like, ‘Well, it’s a story line, man. That’s what they’re supposed to do.’”
It’s the backstory that frames the measured statements by both LSU and Georgia ahead of Saturday’s game.
In the spring of 2010, Mettenberger, who grew up 8 miles away in Watkinsville, Ga., dueled with current Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray for the starting job — a race so tight it lingered on through the spring and left offensive coordinator Mike Bobo with a conundrum.
“Every day was really back and forth,” Murray said this week. “It was fireworks every day at practice. He’d go out there and make a throw, (then) I’d make a throw. It was back and forth, back and forth.”
The race ended abruptly in April 2010. Mettenberger was booted in the wake of an incident that had the makings of a night out gone awry after a drunk-and-disorderly arrest a month earlier.
Instead, a 20-year-old Valdosta State female at the bar in Remerton, Ga., alleged that Mettenberger fondled her. The quarterback, only 19, faced charges of underage possession of alcohol, disorderly conduct, obstruction, possession of two fake IDs and misdemeanor sexual battery.
A plea deal in Lowndes County Superior Court produced 12 months of probation, 80 hours of community service and a $2,000 fine. Richt, who wanted to levy only a suspension, had little choice but to dismiss Mettenberger.
“It was very difficult,” Richt said. “To do it to Zach, knowing Zach for as long as we’ve known him and his mom and dad — they’re family to us. They’re still family to the Georgia program, so it was very difficult. I think he understood. It wasn’t easy for me, and it wasn’t easy for him.”
The exile severed formal ties for a kid who grew up around the Georgia program, freely roaming the confines of Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall.
It also offers a hint as to why Richt gave Mettenberger’s mother the week off from work to avoid any sense of discomfort around the Bulldogs’ practice facility.
“You can imagine how awkward it would be for her,” Richt said Wednesday during the SEC coaches’ teleconference.
Publicly, Mettenberger lays claim to Baton Rouge as his adopted home. But over the summer, he and Neighbors quietly visited for the weekend and spent time with several Georgia players and other “people (who) embrace him with open arms,” Neighbors said.
Understandably, Mettenberger keeps the lid closed on a trove of memories tied to growing up around Richt’s program. Asked to recall the first game he saw at Sanford Stadium, he quickly ticked off the year and opponent: Georgia vs. Wyoming in 1998.
Vivid memories were lacking, or at least withheld, outside of Mettenberger remembering he sat in the “nosebleeds” with his dad.
LSU coach Les Miles said he’s confident Mettenberger can temper any emotions percolating inside. The quarterback is flourishing this season with 1,026 yards and 10 touchdown passes.
“For Zach, it’s going to be a lot of fun for him to take a very, very capable group of men that are committed to the team and him playing in that stadium,” Miles said. “It will be a great experience for him.”
Neighbors said there’s little doubt the quarterback honed his skills to block out white noise.
“Maybe two years ago, the young boy in him would have gotten pissed off at the world and tried to attack them,” Neighbors said. “But he’s matured, and he’s a leader now. Sometimes, you’ve just got to take it on the chin or brush it off your shoulder.”
As for the Bulldogs, they haven’t been spared, either.
On Tuesday, Murray, who enters with 11,131 passing yards and 102 touchdowns in his career, was asked if the entire story was being overblown.
The fifth-year senior smiled and chuckled for a moment before pointing out the obvious.
“I’m sure he’s tired of talking about it,” Murray said. “It’s probably a distraction to him and his team, but as soon as we get to the field Saturday, all that talk will be gone.”
There are efforts in Baton Rouge to dampen the decibel level surrounding a tense family reunion between the fabled hedges. LSU turned down 11 requests from Georgia-based media to interview Mettenberger. On Wednesday, he sat down for an interview with ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt that will air during ESPN’s “College GameDay” broadcast Saturday.
Next is a Friday meeting with CBS’ Gary Danielson, who has said in the past he treats the session as if he were an NFL personnel executive.
Translation: He’s not afraid to press buttons and try to push players on uncomfortable topics.
So that’s where Neighbors’ strategy figures in: Bombard Mettenberger with enough bile to build up his immunity before the quarterback gets coated in boos Saturday.
“I’m going to do it anyway,” Neighbors said. “I’m just going to up the ante a little bit this week.”
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