Fall Camp Position Preview: What's the Deal with LSU's Quarterbacks?

Big. Damn. Hero. Credit: Spruce Derden-US PRESSWIRE

What is the deal with LSU's quarterbacks? Before Tyrann Mathieu's departure, it was pretty much the only question anybody was really asking about the 2012 Tigers. Even without the Honey Badger, it's probably still the single biggest determinant of this team's fate.

Roster Information

Height/Weight

2011 Season

No. 8 Junior Zach Mettenberger

6'5 230

Completed 8 of 11 passes for 92 yards and a touchdown

17 Freshman Stephen Rivers

6'8, 225

Redshirted

1 Junior Rob Bolden

6'4, 208

Completed 53 of 135 passes for 685 yards, 2 touchdowns and 7 interceptions at Penn State

15 Freshman Jerrard Randall

6'1, 186

Redshirted

And we all know exactly whom the spotlight is shining on: Zach Mettenberger.

If the average LSU fan isn't expecting him to be a savior, some fan of some other SEC team has already projected those expectations for them. Our expectations of the former Georgia Bulldog are pretty well-known: a consistent upgrade over the [redacted] era. Of course that could cover a wide range of possibilities. A lot of quarterbacks -- hell, even the ones for schools like ULL and La. Tech last season, fell into that category. The statement in and of itself isn't exactly gushing praise, but that isn't to say I don't have expectations. So let's get into them, starting with a simple roundup of what we know and what we don't.

Here's what we do know:

  • Mettenberger is a tall, well-built prospect with enough athletic ability to avoid the rush in the pocket and occasionally make some throws on the move. He is pure pocket-passer, but not a statue.
  • He has exceptional arm talent, with both the power and throwing touch to put the ball into almost any window on the field. The ball absolutely leaps out of his hand. This kind of talent that could, if properly utilized, make him a high-round -- maybe even first-round -- NFL draft pick.
  • With big-armed quarterbacks, you almost always see a tendency to gamble and take chances. They tend to be willing to take the chances that other quarterbacks might not, because frankly, they can make throws that other quarterbacks can't. These types of QBs tend to be a little more turnover prone, and Mettenberger will throw more than the five interceptions [quarterbacks redacted] combined for last season.
  • Through the limited practice and game snaps that I've seen, I am 100-percent confident that he represents an upgrade over [quarterbacks redacted] by the simple virtue of the ability to move through read progressions during a play, and anticipate his passes. That is to say, he doesn't have to wait until he sees a target break open to make a throw, as the last two QBs did. He can put the ball on the money as things develop.
  • He has, by most accounts, both embraced the leadership role in a way you would expect out of a QB-1, and in turn, been embraced by his teammates as their leader. He has matured beyond his past, learned from the mistakes of his predecessors, and understands exactly what his coaches, teammates and fans expect of him this fall.

Here's what we don't know:

  • Make no mistake, a big arm is great. It allows an offense to attack the entire field, and if the brain it's attached to uses it correctly, it makes your passing game brutally difficult to defend. But accuracy is job one for a quarterback. You have to know when to spin that slant in there, drop the ball in a bucket on a back-shoulder fade, and keep those outs, comebacks and other sideline routes high and outside, less the underneath defender jump them for the pick-six. But can Mettenberger consistently throw catchable balls on time and under pressure? Can he avoid constantly jamming the ball into his receivers' hands, a la Brett Favre? Will his deep balls just miss their outstretched fingertips with a little too much "oomph"?
  • Watch the completion percentage here. It's obviously the best barometer of QB accuracy, though it's not the only stat to watch. The other would be yards-per-attempt. A completion rate in the 60s is obviously the ideal, but one in the 50s is acceptable so long as the YPA is around 8.5 yards or greater. LSU QBs have been in the high sixes and sevens in the last few years, while the national leaders are typically in the 9.5 to 10 range. The two numbers can afford to be inversely proportional for a team like LSU, which will still lead with its running game and attack down the field with the pass. If the completion percentage and high YPA are combined, Mettenberger will be one of the best QBs in the country.I'm on the record above predicting that LSU quarterbacks till turn the ball over more often than they did in 2011. The good news there is, when you only throw five interceptions, the number could probably double and still be fairly manageable. But that's what we don't know about Mettenberger. Will he be able to consistently read defenses, both before and after the snap, and make the right decision?

    It even goes beyond turnovers. There's throwing the ball away, especially in late-game or redzone, when a sack or turnover can be a game-killer. In the quarterback-as-point-guard mixed metaphor, will he understand when to play the distributor and just spread the ball around and when to take over and start trying to make some plays with his arm? Good quarterbacks understand the value of using your protection receiver when the downfield options are covered; but they also understand that if do too much checking down, you're going to be punting an awful lot following third-and-longs. Great quarterbacks know when to take their chances, and when to let their defense and running game make the offense go. Does Mettenberger understand the difference?
  • A degree of physical toughness is always expected with football players, and especially quarterbacks. They're going to get hit by much larger, faster players that are trying to knock them down, and even out if possible. Mettenberger gets to practice against guys like Sam Montgomery, Freak Johnson and Barkevious Mingo, but Jessie Williams, Sean Porter and Ronald Powell will be trying to do what those teammates aren't allowed to in practice.

    There's also mental toughness. A quarterback has to be able take those hits physically and still perform well in the face of more of them. Can he continue to step up and deliver the ball in the face of that pass-rush, or will he get happy feet in the pocket? Mistakes happen -- can he shrug them off and keep throwing? If Robert Lester beats Jarvis Landry for a jump-ball, will Mettenberger shy away from him the next time, or trust his teammate to make a play?A football game moves in fits and starts, and that means things come and go. One play can be sweet, the next sour. Things go wrong, but the one thing every player could control is how he reacts to it. Keep your wits about you in the face of snarling defenders, shouting coaches and screaming fans. Can Mettenberger shrug off his and his teammates' mistakes, and keep playing? Can he raise his game when he has to? The peaks and valleys will come, but can he keep the space between them on an even keel?

If that seems like a lot of question marks, it's no more than any other first-time starter has faced. You can get a feel for some things during an offseason, but you never know how it'll go until the facemasks start flying in the fall. Cam Newton faced them two years ago, and so did other first-timers in the SEC, like Matt Flynn, A.J. McCarron, Aaron Murray or John Brantley. Some of those players had success, others didn't.

But I believe Mettenberger will do well. Why? Maybe it's the offseason rhetoric getting to me, or maybe it's the fact that he's leading a team that doesn't need him to carry the load right now. Maybe it's because, with a powerful and experienced offensive line and stable of big running backs LSU can afford to bring him along and not put too much of the gameplan of his shoulders until he demonstrates how much load he can carry. The schedule sets that up with three home games to lead things off, and only one of them against a tough opponent (Washington -- who presents much more of an offensive challenge than defensive). Plus, we just watched LSU go 13-1, win a conference title and play for a national one with a two-headed dumpster fire under center. Imagine what they could do with even a mediocre-to-average quarterback that can merely hold the rains while the horses pull the wagon? Then imagine what happens if Mettenberger is merely a little better than that.

The passing game I expect to see this year out of LSU will at least be functional, and might even be explosive at times. It might not look like the mid-aughts Texas Tech squads, but it'll be willing to throw on first-down, throw down the field off of play-action, and bring back the screen pass as a viable weapon to put the ball into the hands of some very athletic, very fast wide receivers. In other words, the right compliment to a powerful, diverse running attack and a very good defense. The Tigers aren't likely to score as many defensive touchdowns sans-Mathieu, but it isn't like this team is suddenly going to stop forcing turnovers and struggle to keep teams out of the endzone. A balanced passing game can be well-managed with relative ease and with Mettenberger and these receivers, there's the talent to turn the simple passing concepts of Steve Kragthorpe into something very, very effective. Some games may feature more passing than others, depending on the flow and success rate of the team. It's never been Les Miles' M.O. to keep his foot on the gas with a big lead, and if a couple of well-timed throws coupled with big runs and defense/special teams see LSU open up big leads, the passing attempt number probably won't go that high. But when things are tight, I believe this staff trusts its quarterback.

But depth is a bit of a question (as it is for almost every team at quarterback). Behind Mettenberger is redshirt freshman Stephen Rivers, the tall-drink-of-water little bro of the Chargers' Phillip Rivers. His recruiting rep was as a smart player that consistently outperformed his practice film in games, but thus far there's been even less to draw a conclusion on from him than there is on the starter. Anybody with a strong opinion, positive or negative, on Rivers that isn't in practice every day is pulling it out of his/her ass. That said, when presented with the opportunity pick up a backup with some experience in Penn State transfer Rob Bolden. He hasn't exactly shown much in his time with the Nittany Lions, but at the same time there's enough there in the talent department that a reclamation isn't impossible, especially when you consider that he's third string for now. If injury did force another quarterback into the lineup, at least Bolden has some experience in terms of getting thrown to the wolves. And of course, this team knows how to operate with very little contribution from its quarterback. Fourth-stringer Jerrard Randall seems to have slid down the depth chart since Bolden's arrival, though there has been some talk of using him occasionally as a change-of-pace option (before you groan, repeat these simple words and smack yourself in the back of the head if necessary -- "Jerrard Randall is not [redacted]"). How much that option gets used will probably depend on Mettenberger's performance -- remember, when he had Jamarcus Russell, Miles stuck with one quarterback because he was too valuable with the ball in his hands. Whether Mettenberger is that good, is the question we're all wondering.

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