Mettenberger’s offseason efforts showing on field
Les Miles stumbled across a sight in the dining area of the Lod Cook Hotel on Saturday that surely pleased the LSU coach as he prepared to eat breakfast.
Zach Mettenberger sat at a table with his glance cast downward at an iPad squeezing in a couple extra minutes of film review ahead of a 39-point shelling of UAB that night in Tiger Stadium.
“You can just tell he’s in it,” Miles said Monday.
No one would dispute the LSU quarterback was lax in his effort and intention last season, but until the final four games of the regular season, it was hard to see the translation of hours spent slaving away inside the confines of the Charles McClendon Practice Facility.
But the delayed production and Mettenberger’s chafing at critiques implied in questions created an offseason storyline that reveberated around an echo chamber: Would another offseason and the arrival of NFL veteran offensive coordinator Cam Cameron convert potential energy into realized production?
Two weeks into the season, Mettenberger ranks second in the SEC with 533 passing yards and leads the conference with six touchdown passes, including a school-record five against UAB, to go with a 189.9 passer rating — all figures that on a surface-level evaluation affirm the senior has made the desired leap in his senior season.
The fast start, though, hasn’t tempered that part of Mettenberger’s persona that leave the impression he can be his own cynic as the No. 8 Tigers (2-0) prepare to face Kent State (1-1) at 6 p.m. Saturday in Tiger Stadium.
“With a grain of salt,” Mettenberger siad. “We’re at the total polar opposite end of the spectrum from last season. We know what it’s like to be criticized and criticize ourselves. Right now, we’re doing OK. We know we can get better. We’re not taking this for granted.”
The process carried out behind the wood-plank fence at the LSU practice field to make Mettenberger more efficient, and in the process expand Miles’ trust in the passing game, still remains vague.
Over the summer, he led throwing sessions with receivers three times a week in June and expanded it to four in July. Cameron fine-tuned Mettenberger’s mechanics, such as where his toe points to the target on the throw, how he hitches at the top of his drop or keeping eyes downfield and alert during progressions.
“I think he’s in better shape. I think he’s stronger,” Miles said. “I think that’ll continue to improve, and I think he’s a creature of habit, like we all are. The more you ask him to do certain things, the better he gets at it. I think that that’s what you’re seeing.”
As far as the tweaks to the offense itself, the first two games have brought some noticeable changes. For example, on some intermediate third-down calls, LSU uses a bunched set of receivers with Travin Dural and Jarvis Landry criss-crossing on flat and crossing routes. Or using wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. on end-arounds when he lines up on the boundry side of the formation.
But really, LSU fans wondered about a relatively simply question of whether LSU would make a concerted effort to push the ball down field. The short answer: Yes, they have. Of Mettenberger’s 32 completions, 25 catches have gone for 10-plus yards, which ties him for No. 13 nationally.
Mettenberger, though, doesn’t view the current narrative playing out — an offensive whiz and quarterback guru shows up and commences with an overhaul — as insulting to his own efforts. Even if he is on pace to throw for 3,200 yards — accomplished only twice in LSU history — and a school-record 36 touchdowns this season.
“I probably would have had a significant jump, even if I had a different schedule or a different coach,” Mettenberger said. “But being able to study as much as I do and coach Cam work with me every day has really made it easy for me to prepare this year and have that success that I’ve had.”
On the personality spectrum, Mettenberger can still be dry with a biting sense of sarcasm that can come off condescending to some but as simply tossing jabs back-and-forth to others. To that end, he still hasn’t changed.
“Mett is a guy who if you don’t know him, you might take offense to him,” right guard Trai Turner said. “Me being me and knowing him, I can give him a little bit of what he gives.”
But Mettenberger freely turns the scalpel back on himself and can be cutting in his self-critiques.
Asked Monday about what he wanted to do better after throwing for 282 yards and on 16-of-19 passing, the signal-caller delved into the nuances not often discussed out the quarterback meeting room.
“There’s time where my ball-handling and faking wasn’t so good,” Mettenberger said. “There were two instances where I took the wrong amount in a drop — took seven steps instead of five and probably would have avoided a hit and had a touchdown.”
The appraisal isn’t surprising, either.
“He as a quarterback feels he can do things better,” junior receiver Jarvis Landry said. “That’s the beauty of it. A guy who broke in a record in the stadium still feels like there’s something more he could have done to help the offense move more efficiently. My hat goes (off) to him.”
Perhaps the conditions are ideal for Mettenberger to flourish now, too.
The only academic obligation facing him is a three-hour on-line course, opening up his schedule to set up residence in the football facility “almost every day, all day,” he said.
Ahead of fall camp, players were issued iPads, which they can use to access film footage of practices, scrimmages and opponents. So whether Mettenberger is lounging at home or getting treatment from trainers, he has ready access to materials. Still he prefers the “old school” method of sitting before a screen with a projector running and clicker in hand, pausing and rewinding before jotting down notes.
“Really, if it’s all hours of the day and I need a question answered, I can just go upstairs or shoot coach a text,” Mettenberger said. “If I need something or for him to go into detail a little more, he can help me out with that. Just getting to be up here every day is not a bad gig, either.”
To hear Miles lay it out, his quarterback more fully understands the full array of responsibilities he has with each play call, and when LSU will “change the menu” a little bit by tweaking a route or giving some plays a backside read. Now more than ever, Mettenberger understands the state of focus required to adapt and implement the wrinkles that come his way.
“I think there’s a comfort with how he’s practiced and how he’s prepared that’s allowed us to extend him that view when we take the field,” Miles said. “If it was any different, certainly we would pull the reins back. But that’s not the case. He’s prepared, he works hard, he’s in it, and we do trust him.”
And Mettenberger is keenly aware of what has to be done to earn more slack in the rope from Miles.
“He’s a guy that wants minimal room for error when it comes to turnovers, and passing the ball is a lot easier to turn the ball over,” Mettenberger said. “As long as we keep protecting, keep catching the ball, and I’m accurate, he’s going to have a lot of trust in us.”