Mettenberger revs up number of downfield passes
Six months ago, LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron unveiled a thought exercise to his quarterbacks ahead of the Tigers’ spring game.
Instead of the veteran Cameron dialing up plays, quarterbacks with barely a month of teaching got the play-calling duties dropped in their hands. Sure, the practical purpose of Cameron’s move forced his quarterbacks to balance downs, distance, personnel, time and score.
Cameron, a disciple of Don Coryell and his air-it-out philosophy, had another goal in mind, too.
“I just think he wanted to see what type of thinkers we were,” said quarterback Zach Mettenberger, who, along with Stephen Rivers put up 421 passing yards that day.
At the season’s midway point, Mettenberger leads the nation with 35 completions of 20-plus yards, connecting on 71.4 percent of those throws. He has turned hints of an assertive passing game into reality, averaging 291.5 yards per game.
Even optimistic forecasts for LSU might not have envisioned this outcome as the No. 10 Tigers (5-1, 1-1 Southeastern Conference) prepare to host the league’s top defense in No. 17 Florida (4-1, 3-0) at 2:30 p.m. Saturday.
“I can tell you, I felt like it was just exactly the right pieces or factors to come together,” LSU coach Les Miles said Monday. “Yeah, I really did. I don’t underestimate our offense, nor do I underestimate Cam.”
Mettenberger’s jump in accuracy downfield — he ranks fifth nationally in completions longer than 10 yards — might be attributed to some personality traits he shares with Cameron.
“We’re both very very aggressive mindsets,” Mettenberger said. “When we were up, we were both still wanting to pass the ball. We’re both very confident that our receivers will make the plays, that our line will be pass-protecting, and I won’t turn the ball over. That’s just the biggest thing that connects us.”
And it’s not as if LSU has shed an identity rooted on the ground, either.
So far, LSU’s ratio of running plays has been 61 percent, with each of its 39 carries a game netting nearly 5 yards — numbers nearly identical to last season. The difference is a passing game working at maximum efficiency. LSU’s 26.3 attempts per game rank only 107th nationally while its 11.3 yards per attempt ranks fifth.
Delving deeper, situational stats show Cameron isn’t more inclined to be pass-happy on first down, either. The Tigers’ 62 throws on first down put them on roughly the same pace as last season, when Mettenberger passed 115 times.
“It’s been the type of play-calling,” wide receiver Travin Dural said. “He’s been calling the right plays for us at the right time.”
For example, during the opening drive of last week’s 59-26 victory at Mississippi State, as the Bulldogs loaded the box to stop the Tigers running game, Cameron called deep crossing plays for wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and a deep out for Jarvis Landry, which added up to 67 yards.
Mettenberger also has developed a chemistry with Beckham and Landry. When throwing to those two wideouts, Mettenberger is 77 of 104 for 1,302 passing yards and 15 touchdowns, with a 218.5 quarterback efficiency rating.
That figure ranks Mettenberger ahead of potential Heisman Trophy candidates like Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater and Florida State’s Jameis Winston.
“It definitely helps when you have two guys ... catching everything you throw,” tight end Travis Dickson said. “You can tell he has so much confidence in them, and that when he puts the ball in the air, they’re going to go make a play.”
There were small adjustments, too.
At the start of spring practice, Cameron videotaped catching stations and team drills. The footage was the first film watched in meetings. And when players trudged into the locker room, a board charted the most sure-handed players.
Cameron and receivers coach Adam Henry altered the breaks for pass catchers at top end of comeback and curl routes, replacing angle cuts with rounded cuts to allow receivers to maintain their acceleration.
“It’s just the little things that we’ve worked on,” wide receiver Kadron Boone said. “Getting in and out of our breaks, leveraging a defender, climbing on contact when we get it. It was nothing major. It was just small things that make a big difference in the game.”
The other noticeable change is Mettenberger’s mentality when he leaves the huddle and begins diagnosing defenses.
On Monday, Miles alluded to the idea that Mettenberger’s confidence partly stems from his understanding of Cameron’s goals and how to make appropriate tweaks.
“There are some guys that Cam would have to have detailed it maybe a little bit differently,” Miles said. “You’re really getting to the back end of a guy’s career and coaching him somewhat differently where he can accept the changes, understand the changes and make a difference.”
It’s a trait Mettenberger hinted at in early April.
“Things are clearer for me out there,” Mettenberger said. “It just helped me understand the game from a different light and a broader spectrum.”