There’s a knock on the door. It opens.
Les Miles looks up from his desk as a cleanly-shaven, well-dressed Zach Mettenberger strides in. Though both are generally affable and relaxed, the tone feels different this time. It’s stern. It’s serious.
“I want to wear No. 18,” Mettenberger asserts. “This is my team, and we’re going to compete for championships this year because I’m going to be better.”
No, I’m not reporting. The meeting, at least to my knowledge, hasn’t happened. But I wish it would.
As fall camp approaches and another five-month grind commences, the No. 18 remains an empty shirt. Undoubtedly someone will don it as the Tigers roar out of the bowels of Cowboys Stadium in a month, but that person is yet to be identified.
It’s a number that has been worn by a quarterback, a running back, a tight end and safety. Last year defensive tackle Bennie Logan awkwardly draped it over his shoulder pads, often looking like a pee wee football player who just grabbed the top jersey out of the box prior to the season.
The point being that leaders can come from any position. They can lead in different ways.
Matt Mauck’s age and maturity demanded respect. Jacob Hester wore the badge of honor and led with his ferocious running style. Brandon Taylor, surrounded by All-Americans in the secondary, became the heartbeat of that 2011 defense. His tears in the locker room represented that after a championship slipped away. Logan’s voice was louder, his message more overt.
A far as I know, none of those players after Mauck asked for the number. It was awarded to them by a vote cast by coaches and staff members.
I think that should change this year.
When a defense loses more than 10 players who logged significant time on the field and an offense returns as the league’s tenth most productive, indications are that there must be more juice squeezed from the offensive lemon.
That starts with the quarterback—in this case a fifth year senior.
There were times last year when Mettenberger struggled, missing open receivers and holding on to the ball too long. There were times when he shined, like the second half against Alabama when he completed 14 of 17 for 206 yards.
The consistency that has eluded the LSU offense since 2007 never showed up. No one is lumping all of that on Mettenberger. There was blame shoveled all over the place.
But for this LSU football team to maneuver through one of the most brutal schedules in college football and represent the SEC West in Atlanta, Mettenberger will have to be great.
The Tigers won’t win in Athens or Tuscaloosa by scoring 14 points. That won’t cut it against Texas A&M either, and judging by last season’s contests, the Mississippi schools can score a little too.
LSU will likely have to win a couple of shootouts behind the loaded arm of its signal caller, the guy wearing No. 18.
He’s got to take hits, make throws and settle his team. Those duties come on Saturdays.
He’s got to put in extra work, maintain morale and shepherd three younger quarterbacks. Those duties come every day.
To insinuate that only the man who wears No. 18 can perform these tasks would be misguided, but going to take that number and outwardly proclaiming the intent to do so would be a hell of a message.
Truth be told, a wide receiver or a safety can have as much of a leadership role on the practice field or in the locker room. They just can’t impact a game like a quarterback can.
Covering Zach for two years and getting to know him a little bit, this entire train of thought goes against his personality. He works hard. He leads. He cares. He’s just not one to bring attention to himself and take the proverbial bull by the horns.
Is this LSU offense ready to surprise some people? Have its most recognizable figure do something out of the ordinary.
Maybe it’s time for a change. Maybe it’s time Mettenberger steps out of that comfort zone and makes a statement. Maybe it’s time he takes the No. 18.