By Jim Weber
The 2012 national title hopes for the LSU Tigers were already resting on the cannon right arm of QB Zach Mettenberger. With the dismissal of CB Tyrann Mathieu last Friday, the pressure on the signal-caller just ratcheted up another notch.
LSU has arguably the best running backs, offensive line, and defensive line in the SEC and will still be loaded in the secondary without the “Honey Badger.” If Mettenberger is as good as advertised and exceeds the output of 2011′s un-dynamic duo of Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee, the Tigers should still be the favorite to clutch the crystal ball next January in Miami over USC, Alabama, Oregon and Oklahoma.
But the question with just over two weeks until LSU’s season opener on Sept. 1 is this: “Is Mettenberger the next Cam Newton or the next Ryan Perrilloux?”
Obviously I’m not comparing their physical attributes or saying Mettenberger will win a Heisman Trophy this fall.
But just like Newton, who was born to play in Gus Malzahn’s spread offense at Auburn, Mettenberger appears to be the perfect fit under center for LSU.
Reports out of Baton Rouge that include a stellar recent scrimmage make the junior sound like the second coming of Peyton Manning with his giant 6-foot-5 frame and laser, rocket arm and accuracy. Heck, there’s already talk about Mettenberger going in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft despite the fact he’s only throw 11 career passes at the FBS level.
And there’s no doubt that a prototypical pocket passer like Mettenberger would be a perfect fit for Les Miles’ smash-mouth offense that desperately needs someone who can throw a home run ball to keep defenses from stacking the box – something the offense sorely missed last season.
Obviously, we won’t know if Mettenberger is the real deal until we see him prove it on the field. Normally, I’d say it’s ridiculous to think Mettenberger could lead a team to a national title and land into the first round of the NFL draft, but Cam Newton has set a new standard for what a JuCo transfer is capable of.
The bigger question is if Mettenberger can keep his head on straight during his second chance like Cam Newton did after getting caught stealing a computer at Florida.
All indications are that Mettenberger has matured since getting thrown off Georgia’s football team in 2010 and is ready to be a leader for the Tigers this fall. He’s stayed off police blotter and the coaching staff certainly seems to be all-in with Mettenberger, bringing him to SEC media days last month and speaking highly of his leadership and maturity.
But considering Jefferson’s legal troubles last season and the dismissal of Mathieu, you’ll forgive college football fans for being cynical about whether Mettenberger can stay on the straight and narrow.
Remember him? Perrilloux was the No. 1 recruit in the nation in 2005 and was compared to Donovan McNabb in high school.
Perrilloux’s trouble off the field became a running punch line with multiple suspensions for breaking team rules and embarrassing behavior like reportedly using counterfeit bills, a bar fight and trying to enter a casino with a fake ID. Finally kicked off the team in ’08, the whole fiasco put Miles in a bad light for allowing a star player so many chances.
Enter Mettenberger, whose dismissal from Georgia’s team as a freshman in 2010 became national news over misdemeanor sexual battery after allegedly feeling up a girl at a bar immediately after Pittsburgh Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger was investigated for sexually assaulting a woman in Milledgeville, GA.
And while Mettenberger has stayed out of salacious headlines since leaving Athens, his character is certainly going to be tested just as much as his football skills this fall. Because when you are a winning quarterback in the SEC, you are a god. And if Mettenberger gets off to a hot start, he’s going to faced with the same temptations that led to his downfall at Georgia. There will be women falling all over him, people tempting him to blow off class, LSU fans offering free hand outs wherever he turns, jealous men looking to start fights and students with a limitless supply of drugs and alcohol at his disposal.
Perrilloux, Stephen Garcia, Tyler Bray, Jordan Jefferson and Ryan Mallett are just recent examples of SEC quarterbacks who have failed to overcome the off-the-field dangers that will await Mettenberger (again) this fall. Heck, look no further than Mathieu, who appears to have failed his third drug test as a Tiger after letting the “Honey Badger” phenomenon go to his head.
And if Mettenberger couldn’t keep his head on straight as a redshirt freshman, it’s obviously very worrisome how he would handle being the Big Shot On Campus of the No. 1 team in the country.
LSU graduate Liz Anderson already compared Mettenberger to Perrilloux in Gannett Louisiana, saying of the former: “They forgave him. They forgave him. And they forgave him. Then finally they had to kick him out. LSU could be repeating the same mistake and expecting a different outcome. That’s Einstein’s definition of insanity. And it hasn’t been that long ago. How can they have forgotten?’”
Needless to say, these next six months are the biggest of Zach Mettenberger’s life. He could go from having never started an FBS game to a national champion about to make millions in the NFL. Or he could just end up as another SEC quarterback cautionary tale.
Considering the obstacles he faces, there might not be a single college football player with bigger challenges on and off the field this fall than Mettenberger. I just hope he’s ready for both.
Jim Weber is the founder and president of LostLettermen.com. His column appears Monday and Wednesdays. You can follow him on Twitter at @JimMWeber.