And so it begins, our yearly journey through the LSU depth chart cranks up today as the calendar flips to July. This time last year there were very few unknowns among the Tiger starters. That’s not the case this year after a record number of draftees joined senior defections to form a mass exodus following the 2012 season. Talent is certainly in abundant supply, but depth and experience will have to be gained over time. We’ll start at quarterback where the cupboard is as well stocked as it has been since 2006 or 2007 with guys like JaMarcus Russell, Matt Flynn, Ryan Perrilloux and Jarrett Lee.
The Departed: None
They’re Back: Zach Mettenberger (6’5”, 230, Sr.); Stephen Rivers (6’7”, 230, Soph.)
Who’s New: Anthony Jennings (6’2”, 205, Fr.); Hayden Rettig (6’2, 201, Fr.)
What We Know: Expectations were probably a little bit too high for Zach Mettenberger last season. Those were obviously aided by some wacko writer carving out a column in this space proclaiming that Mettenberger was the answer to the offensive woes that plagued the Tigers in the BCS title game nine months earlier. There were flashes, sure. The bomb to Odell Beckham in Gainesville, sluggo to Kadron Boone in College Station, the second half against Alabama, all come to mind. Mettenberger has the tools to be a great college quarterback. He’s got one more chance to be that guy. Last season he completed 58 percent of his throws for 12 touchdowns and seven picks. He threw for 200-plus yards in the final four games of the regular season before having that streak snapped in the Chick-fil-a Bowl against Clemson. One of those games was the Alabama game where he was fantastic. He took hit after hit and continued to put the ball on the money. He threw for 298 yards that day and gave LSU a chance to win that game. In his fifth season of college football, Mettenberger will work with his fifth different offensive voice, Cam Cameron. Mettenberger’s relaxed style would appear the clash with the stern demeanor Cameron portrays, but the two seemed very comfortable with each other in the spring. We’ll see how much Cameron trusts his senior signal caller this season. Last year LSU was very conservative in the red zone in terms of passing. A pair of poor early decisions by Mettenberger against North Texas and Washington basically pulled the plug on red zone passing for the season. Those came when Mettenberger held on to the ball for two long and forced a late throw. The internal clock malfunctions from time to time with Mettenberger, but it got better as the season progressed.
We just haven’t seen a ton from Rivers. As a redshirt freshman he only attempted two passes, statistically. One came on a third down play against Ole Miss after Mettenberger got his bell rung. That pass was incomplete. Rivers has yet to complete a collegiate pass, and I think that’s a bit of a mistake. LSU had opportunities to get Rivers in the ballgame last year, and he wasn’t given any playing time. Understandably, Mettenberger needed reps. He was the guy who had the ability to help the team win championships. I still think Rivers could have thrown six or seven passes against Idaho in a 63-14 game. But we do know a little bit about Rivers now. He’s obviously filled out that lanky frame. He’s put on about 40 lbs. since arriving in Baton Rouge. In practice his throws have come a long way from the duck-firing machine he was as a freshman. His arm is stronger. He’s release is cleaner, and his throws are more accurate. I thought Rivers did a wonderful job in the spring game. He completed seven of 10 throws for a pair of touchdowns, and he didn’t turn it over. Two springs ago Rivers was eaten alive by the first defense. This time around he got a look at the second defense and played very well. Rivers has come a long way in two years.
In what was basically his parting shot, Steve Kragthorpe looks to have landed a talented quarterback duo. Anthony Jennings and Hayden Rettig came to LSU as highly decorated prep signal callers, and they came from far away to wear the purple and gold. Both arrived for spring ball which is going to be immensely helpful in their development. Without question, Jennings had the better spring. Cameron upped the tempo in his first semester on the job, and Jennings jumped right in and looked the part. Jennings isn’t tall, but he’s not short either. He’s got plenty of arm to play the position, and he can move a little bit, too. Rettig is not quite as big as we thought he was, but he’s got plenty of size and a big time arm. He’s just got to harness that thing sometimes. Rettig was erratic most of the spring and didn’t get much playing time in the spring game. Jennings was out there basically the entire game and may have been the story of the day. Working with a walk on center, against the first team defense, Jennings completed eight of 21 and didn’t turn the ball over. He made a gorgeous throw to Kadron Boone for a big gainer, and showed some mobility, rushing for 15 yards on a play when his receivers were draped. In a meaningless exhibition game, Jennings looked great.
What To Expect: If LSU is going to make any type of push for a western division title, Mettenberger is going to have to be the centerpiece. With a ton of pieces gone from the defense, conventional wisdom would suggest that LSU will give up some points against teams like Alabama, Texas A&M, Georgia and Ole Miss. Those teams have veteran quarterbacks and playmakers. So does LSU. Mettenberger needs to be great on 1st and 10. He needs to be great on 3rd and 7, and he needs to be great in the red zone. Mettenberger has had three years of practice with most of his receivers, and he’ll get a new toy this year in Quantavius Leslie. I think Mettenberger will cut down the interceptions this year and bolster the production. Look for about 2,700 yards. He threw for just under that last year. Look for 15 touchdowns or so, but the interception total needs to be around five. The offenses on LSU’s schedule don’t need extra opportunities.
Rivers should get some looks against UAB, Kent St. and Furman. I have no reason to believe he’ll be anything but good against those teams. I think he’ll be able to throw it around a little bit. Barring injury, Saturdays won’t be all that important for Rivers. Monday to Thursday every week will be vital. Those kids are coming, and Rivers will have to hold them off to earn the starting job for 2014. But we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. If Rivers is called upon this year, I do believe the entire playbook will still be in use. I did not believe that this time last year. Rivers has been in the system for two full years and works as hard as anyone. He’s physically mature enough to play in the SEC, it’s just a matter of execution. Right now, I don’t know how comfortable the staff would be with Rivers out there. I’m not sure they want to saddle the season to him just yet.
The youngsters may be split this fall. I expect Rettig to redshirt. I expect Jennings will not. Being that Rivers couldn’t find time to play last year, I’m not sure Jennings will this year. He’s athletic enough to come in and run a read option here or there, but nothing tells me that’s imminent. Jennings will likely play Johnny Manziel and Aaron Murray during the week, getting a look at a fast defense day in and day out. That will help his development for sure. As we mentioned before, Rettig has a ways to go. Finally at LSU, a kid has the luxury to wait a little while to play thanks to the depth in front of him.