LSU Football 2013 Optimistic/Pessimistic/ Realistic: Quarterback

USA TODAY Sports

Another year is upon us, and the spotlight is once again on LSU’s quarterback.

We do this every year, don't we?

Enter season camp with a very bright spotlight on the quarterback position and a host of questions. It's tempting to chalk that up to the nature of the LSU offense, but a nuanced approach shows that they've changed along with the questions for the offense.

2010: Can a revamped running game help quarterbacks that struggled to manage the game the previous season?
2011: Can a group of regressed signal-callers rebound for a strong senior season?
2012: Does a new talent bring the passing game to the next level?
2013: Will a new offensive coordinator combine with a talented starter to create a dangerous air attack?

The good news is, while incremental, the trend is still upward. LSU's quarterback play was better last season than it was the year before, and for the first time in half a decade, there's real depth at the position and reason to hope for the future.

But LSU needs a better offense, and they need it now. A better passing game will go a long way towards making that happen. Whether the Tigers have that or not, is what everybody is wondering about.

1 Rob Bolden (Jr.)

6-4, 209

Injury redshirt.

8 Zach Mettenberger (Sr.)*

6-5, 235

Completed 207 of 352 passes (59%) for 2,609 yards (7.4 yards per attempt) with 12 TDs and 7 interceptions.

10 Anthony Jennings (Fr.)

6-2, 211

2012 stats not available (?)

11 Hayden Rettig (Fr.)

6-2, 205

Completed 261 of 485 passes (54%) for 3,424 yards (7.0) w/40 TDs and 18 interceptions at Cathedral High School in Los Angeles.

17 Stephen Rivers (RS-So.)

6-7, 223

Saw time in 4 games but only attempted 2 passes (0-2)

Zach Mettenberger has been discussed so much this offseason that it's almost difficult to find new things to say or new questions to ask. His 2012 was about as up and down as it could be. Solid start, followed by a steep downturn in October, an incredibly strong run through November (including a record for consecutive games over 250 yards passing) but then a whimper in the bowl game. At different times everything was a bit of a mixed bag, really, in ways that were not unusual for a first-time starter. And usually, when things were going wrong it involved more than just QB play. The Peach Bowl was a classic case: a banged-up/unengaged offensive line struggled, the running game was inconsistent, multiple receivers dropped passes and at times, Mettenberger simply misfired. Pinning down one single problem for him (and by extension, the offense) is a bit of an oversimplification.

Once again, let's start with what we know. Mettenberger has ideal size with a big arm that allows him to challenge nearly every corner of the field; he can squeeze the short and intermediate throws into tight windows, but struggled a bit hitting the deep ball consistently; he's pretty stationary in the pocket, but has no problem staring down the pass-rush and taking a big hit to make the throw; his decision making, overall, is solid, although he had some issues recognizing pre-snap pressure; and he was dramatically better in home games versus the road. In terms of the intangibles, there's a sense that while this might not truly be "his" team*, he has the respect of his teammates and the belief of not only them, but the LSU coaching staff, to play through mistakes.

*Side Note: I don't know that I've ever seen a Tiger quarterback that really ran their huddle with the exception of Rohan Davey. Even players like Matt Mauck, Jamarcus Russell and Matt Flynn never seemed to be the guy in their respective huddles.*

In terms of his foibles, it feels like a lot of them were consistent with a player whose only real experience as a starting quarterback prior to 2012 was a season of junior college. Even with just the natural progression that you would expect of any quarterback, there should be some noticeable improvement -- and that's before you even get to the addition of a proven quarterback coach like Cam Cameron.

He doesn't walk the path to improvement alone. For his part, Mettenberger, mechanically, can learn to loosen his grip on the ball slightly, which should improve the loft, and in turn, the placement on his deep passes. But a more consistent lineup on the offensive line would certainly help loosen playcalling and the need for increased protection, and fewer drops out of the receiving corps would certainly help extend more drives.

And of course, a steadier hand on the wheel of play-calling would also help keep the offense on track even when execution issues, or the strengths of an opponent, create problems.

If I can get slightly off topic for a second, let's talk about playcalling. Of course it's always a major topic in the message board circles and talk-radio, but we've seen a ton of the local beat writers talking with Cameron and Miles on the topic of "team offense" and playcalling like it's some sort of bizarre concept they have no understanding of.

Let's be clear on one thing: a football team's playcalling and offense are ALWAYS a team concept. A coordinator is not an island to himself. The entire staff, head coach included, watches film to prepare for an opponent. The offensive line coach will help select the running plays he feels his front block the best -- which will, in turn, determine play-action pass plays and the formations the offense will use. The receivers coach will help select route combinations based on how he views the personnel matchups. The running backs coach has a say in personnel based on the gameplan. Example: if the offense wants to be more pass-heavy they may use a particular back that's better at blocking and catching. It's up to an offensive coordinator to combine all of this input with his own, and of course, the head coach's to create the gameplan for an opponent and implement it over the course of a game.

And the head coach will always have a say. This can involve things as simple as suggesting a play, or as talking a few down the line. If the offense is in, say 3rd and 6 at the opponent's 35, the head coach may make it known that he doesn't want to try for a field goal, and that they'll go for it on fourth down. That can change how a coordinator views that third-down call. Certainly, he might veto a call -- maybe it's 3rd and 1, and the OC wants to take a chance with a play-action pass down the field and the head coach would rather just play it safe and go for the first. Sometimes there are suggestions, like "hey, that free safety sure is jumping up to play the run, maybe we should try to take a shot on play-action," or "that backside end is crashing in ever time, what do you think about a reverse?" Hell, sometimes the offensive coordinator might even ask the head coach what he thinks about a particular situation.

All of this is so much more complex than the simplistic "who calls the plays" question that fans and media are always asking regarding Les Miles and his coordinators. Saints head coach Sean Payton calls his own plays for his team -- that doesn't mean his OC doesn't have a lot of input play-to-play. John Chavis will run his defense, that doesn't mean Miles doesn't have input there either. There's so much involved in managing a game that few, if any head coaches, even have time to bind a coordinator's hands by dictating playcalling. And Les Miles doesn't do it any more or any less than any other head coach. There seems to be a "good play=Cam/bad play=Les" strawman narrative forming that really needs to be cut off at the knees.

And if there's one thing that I hope I've made clear through all the pieces I've written regarding this offense and the changes Cameron will bring, it's that the core principles are not changing. LSU will look to establish the run with power- and zone-blocking, and build a passing game off of that. Cameron brings some new terminology, and a different approach, and there may be a new formation/personnel grouping every now and then. But on a basic level, the offense will not look radically different. It just needs to work better.

Cameron has compared Mettenberger to Joe Flacco, and in a lot of ways I can see why. Both are big, statuesque passers with strong arms that, for the most part, throw with accuracy and make solid decisions. Mettenberger might not have it him to put together an All-SEC type season, but part of that is due to competition from the likes of Johnny Manziel (until the NCAA says otherwise he's still playing) and Aaron Murray, but Flacco's never going to beat out a Drew Brees/Aaron Rodgers type for MVP either. But in both cases, you can not only win with them, but win big.

And if Zach Mettenberger can refine his game, especially in a lot of the smaller areas, coaches and fans will be very pleased with the results.

Even with the questions surrounding the starter, the overall outlook at this position is the best in years, thanks to the best quarterback recruiting class since Russell and Flynn arrived together 10 years ago. Anthony Jennings is the headliner, and thus far as more than met the hype. He's jumped third-year vet Stephen Rivers for the backup job, and there's been a lot of speculation that LSU will try to use him on the field in year one through some special packages. Our stance on Jennings is known here, and while I'm all for using every weapon at LSU's disposal, I'm hoping that the coaches don't try to shoehorn Jennings in too much. Gary Crowton was notorious for ruining momentum on drives by trying to do too much at times, even when Ryan Perriloux was very effective in that role.

Jennings' classmate, Hayden Rettig, appears likely headed for a redshirt, but the good news is that the staff was very pleased with his development since his arrival in the spring. Rettig looked a little scatter-armed in his first few practices, but, reportedly, he's learning to play more under control. Still, a redshirt year could also help create some separation between the two freshmen, and if Jennings is Mettenberger's heir-apparent, that separation is a good idea going forward.

Optimistic

Mettenberger takes his game to the next level as LSU's offense becomes one of the more potent in the SEC and he contends for all-league honors. Jennings is able to find ample garbage-time reps to prepare for 2014, and is effective in whatever role the staff has in mind.

Pessimistic

Mettenberger continues to struggle with pocket presence and the deep ball, and in the process of bearing a heavier load, becomes slightly more turnover prone. If that happens, LSU will still have a lot of the same issues they had last year. And yeah, we know that this team can win with a limited offense, but with the defense still coming together, that could make for a rough for a rough road with this schedule.

Realistic

The ceiling on Mettenberger is likely similar to Alabama's A.J. McCarron: an efficiency machine that may not be the kind of pure playmaker that you turn lose like a Murray, or an Andrew Luck or Matt Barkley, but can still be incredibly effective when paired with a strong running game. The natural improvement that you'd expect with a year of experience alone should push him to a higher level. If Cameron's development and a little more maturity are added to that, he could put together a strong senior season.

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