EAST: Mettenberger’s path different than Lee’s

LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger talks to reporters during NCAA college football media day at LSU in Baton Rouge Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2011. Show caption
LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger talks to reporters during NCAA college football media day at LSU in Baton Rouge Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2011.

LSU’s game against Northwestern State on Saturday night could afford Zach Mettenberger a luxury Jarrett Lee never had.

Mettenberger, the much-heralded transfer quarterback who started his career at Georgia, could well play for the first time in a college game when the Tigers open their home season against the outmanned Demons in Tiger Stadium.

If Mettenberger makes his long-anticipated debut, he’ll do so with considerably less pressure on him than Lee had as a redshirt freshman in 2008. Sure Lee opened against another outmanned opponent (Appalachian State), but he was locked in a battle with Andrew Hatch to see who would lead the defending BCS champions.

Despite the lofty expectations for Mettenberger, he is being groomed to start down the road, ideally not until next season. The plan is for his initial action to serve as a way to ease him into a more prominent role at a time that coach Les Miles chooses, not one that circumstances dictate, as they did with Lee four years ago.

In 2008, after tune-ups against the Mountaineers and then North Texas in which the quarterbacks shared the snaps pretty evenly, Lee took over for an injured Hatch in Week 3, at Auburn in the Southeastern Conference opener.

Lee rallied LSU from a 14-3 halftime deficit by throwing two second-half touchdowns to key a 26-21 victory. Overall, he completed 11-of-22 for 182 yards with one interception and the two touchdowns. All in all, a very successful SEC debut.

“It was crazy. It was surreal,” Lee recalled a few days ago. “I was only 18, 19 years old and I was thinking, man this is easy.”

Of course, it wasn’t really easy, and it won’t be easy for Mettenberger as he grows into the position, but initially it figures to be easier than Lee’s first season was.

Lee struggled as a player who wasn’t recruited to start as a freshman - Ryan Perilloux was supposed to be the quarterback, but he couldn’t stay out of trouble and got kicked off the team. Lee threw more interceptions (16) than touchdowns (14) and became the person most blamed for the Tigers slipping to 8-5 and 3-5 in the SEC.

His season ultimately ended with an ankle injury in the second-to-last regular-season game against Ole Miss.

“I knew it was going to take some growing up, and take some maturity (to develop),” Lee said, “and I feel like I have done that - grown up and matured as a player.”

Lee’s injury opened the door for true freshman Jordan Jefferson, who remained the starter - with Lee playing a supporting role - until getting suspended two weeks ago after being arrested. Now Lee is back as the starter, a job he presumably will one day turn over to Mettenberger.

“I keep that season (2008) in the back of my mind knowing that I don’t want that to happen again,” Lee said of his struggles. “But there were some games back in 2008 where I had seen some moments that I knew I could make it happen.”

Perhaps as soon as Saturday night we’ll get our first look at how game ready Mettenberger is. There will be those watching who have booed Lee lustily in the past who are ready to anoint Mettenberger as soon as Lee makes a mistake. If Mettenberger should play and play well, the Mettenberger bandwagon will overflow.

But Mettenberger will make his debut knowing that unless something changes dramatically, this is Lee’s team.

Mettenberger doesn’t have the pressure of beginning his career as the starter or even splitting snaps with Lee as Lee did with Hatch in 2008. He can get his feet wet in a game that the Tigers figure to win handily regardless of how much or how well he plays. He can afford to make mistakes in a game in which his mistakes won’t mean the difference between a win and a loss.

Lee said he’d like to stake the Tigers to a big lead, so Mettenberger can get a chance against the Demons.

“Zach has done a great job of preparing since he’s been here, so I don’t think Zach will have a problem,” Lee said, “but it would be good for Zach to get in and get some reps. He prepares hard each and every day, so I know he’d do a great job. Zach’s going to get reps this season and he’s going to do a great job when he gets in there.”

He’d do well to learn from Lee’s battle scars even as he’s fortunate enough to avoid his own, at least initially.