Ask LSU’s Zach Mettenberger if he’s ready, and you hear the hunger, pain and focus -- all wrapped up into one -- very clearly in his voice.
It wasn’t supposed to take this long for him to get his first real taste of being a starting quarterback in the SEC.
Not even close.
“It’s been a long and winding road in my college career so far, and I’ve gone through the trials and tribulations just to get here,” Mettenberger said.
He never envisioned it going the way it did when he graduated early from Oconee County (Ga.) High School in December 2008, but he also wasn’t banking on running afoul of the law thanks to a night of partying.
So here he is, going on four years removed from high school, and still waiting to take his first meaningful snap in an SEC game.
That’s about to change as LSU opens spring practice on Thursday, and while Mettenberger’s not into making a bunch of promises, he does promise one thing: He’s determined to do everything in his power to prove to everybody that there’s a lot more to him than what’s stated in that Remerton, Ga., arrest report from the spring of 2010.
“People remember me as the talented guy who got kicked off the team at Georgia,” Mettenberger said. “It sucks that it’s that way, but that’s the way the world is until I go out there and show who I really am and then hopefully people will forget about it. I made a mistake, and I had to pay for it.
“The only way anybody’s going to move on is when I get back on the field and start playing again.”
Mettenberger was dismissed from Georgia’s team in April 2010, a little more than a week after putting up better numbers than Aaron Murray in the Bulldogs’ G-Day spring game.
At the time, Mettenberger’s March arrest in a bar outside of Valdosta, Ga., was already public knowledge, and Georgia coach Mark Richt had already said that Mettenberger faced at least a one-game suspension.
But the police investigation also turned up sexual battery charges against Mettenberger in addition to underage alcohol consumption and disorderly conduct charges. The timing couldn’t have been worse for Mettenberger, especially given the rash of alcohol-related arrests involving Georgia football players. Richt announced in April that Mettenberger had been dismissed.
Mettenberger pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of sexual battery and was sentenced to two concurrent 12-month probationary periods under the state of Georgia’s first-offender act. All of the alcohol-related charges were later dropped.
Having spent two springs at Georgia (but never playing in a game), Mettenberger headed to Butler (Kan.) Community College and threw 32 touchdown passes during the 2010 season. He emerged as the top junior college quarterback prospect in the country and picked LSU over offers from Alabama, Arkansas and Texas A&M.
So when Mettenberger says it’s been a long time coming, he means it.
He also understands the meaning of not getting too high with the highs and too low with the lows.
“I’ve dealt with a lot of adversity in my past, and feel like no matter what happens, through the good times and the bad, that I can keep a level head,” Mettenberger said. “I feel like I can still be a good player no matter what. If I throw a pick, I think I’m going to go out and lead our team on a touchdown drive that next series.
“All the stuff I’ve been through has helped mold and prepare me for next season.”
While at Georgia, the 6-foot-5 Mettenberger says he was pushing 260 pounds. He weighed in at 225 last week and hopes to play somewhere in the 225-230 range this fall.
“I’m a lot quicker, and my overall game has improved since losing that weight,” said Mettenberger, whose mother, Tammy, has worked in the Georgia football office under Richt for the past decade.
And speaking of Georgia, the coaches and players there still rave about Mettenberger’s arm strength and his undying work ethic. He was oftentimes the last player to leave the practice field.
That hasn’t changed at LSU.
“The way I look at it is that you’ve got to always prepare yourself like you’re the starter no matter if you’re first string, fourth string or a walk-on,” Mettenberger said. “It shouldn’t matter. You always have to prepare. Anything can happen in this game, and I think people have seen that over the years. So I always want to feel like I’m ready.
“I was ready last year if Coach [Les] Miles had needed me and feel confident that I could have gone in there and won games.”
His big right arm may be what people know him by, but Mettenberger has also been around the SEC long enough to know that you don’t make it in this league by trying to squeeze the ball in tight spaces all the time.
“I always tell people that it takes two things: heart and brains,” Mettenberger said. “There are so many guys who didn’t have the measurables. Look at the Drew Brees and Joe Montanas at the pro level and then a guy like Kellen Moore in college. Look at the job he did against the Georgia defense last year.
“If you know what you’re doing, it doesn’t matter how hard you can throw the ball or how far you can throw it or whether you can run a 4.4 [in the 40-yard dash]. If you know where you’re supposed to go with the ball in every situation and minimize your mistakes, you’re going to be a good quarterback no matter where you are.”
Mettenberger is well aware that people will be watching his every step -- both on and off the field.
“I’ll just use it as motivation,” he said.
In a lot of ways, the doubters have been his fuel for his entire career.
“Growing up, I was the short, fat kid,” Mettenberger explained. “I didn’t start at quarterback until I got to be a junior in high school. I was always a backup to one of my best friends.
“I’ve always been told that I couldn’t do something, that I couldn’t do this or do that and that I wouldn’t be able to play quarterback. That’s been my motivation and makes me work every day. Even with my off-the-field troubles, that’s motivation to prove people wrong and really just get people to shut up and move on.
“I moved on a long time ago and am just looking forward to getting back out there and having fun again and showing everybody what I can do … and who I am.”