BATON ROUGE, La. -- A linear collegiate career would never have led Zach Mettenberger here, to the opposite end of the Deep South from where he grew up.
It hasn't been perfect since he arrived. It certainly wasn't perfect before then.
But this, for Mettenberger, has become home.
And with his exit on the horizon, his hope -- and the hope of others in Les Miles' program -- is that his current stability proves the growth is real, and that he's as ready to lead an NFL franchise as any quarterback in this year's draft class, both physically and mentally.
"He's a guy who really has matured probably more than any other player we've had here," said LSU director of athletic training Jack Marucci, who's been at the school since 1996. "He realizes the right things to do, he realizes what makes him successful with his teammates. He's someone who can tell a story on how to do it the wrong way and the right way. That's been the nice thing for us to see."
Like most trainers, Marucci spends a lot of time around the players, probably more than most coaches. And given that Mettenberger's now working back from a torn ACL (and the ensuing reconstructive surgery) after shredding his left knee in the Tigers' regular-season finale, Marucci's spent even more time around the quarterback.
He's sold. So are others in the program. They've seen the kid go from shaggy-haired party animal with a bad reputation to tough, battle-tested team leader.
Yes, Mettenberger still needs to shake his head every few minutes to keep the mop top from blocking his vision. Most everything else has changed.
"It really came down to thinking about what I wanted in life," Mettenberger said in early April, a day before putting on a pro-day display that proved he'd made a quantum leap in coming back from the surgery. "I wanted to be a great quarterback in the NFL. You can't do that being at the bars every night of the week. I sat down and thought about my priorities and what's important to me. And I knew what I needed to sacrifice. I've done that."
He's zigged and zagged all over the map the past five years. There were exceptionally dark times, when he pleaded guilty to sexual battery. There was a resulting move from his dream school to community college, and his landing at LSU wasn't exactly a soft one. There are still doubts about whether he'll make it, whether he's really grown up.
But what matters to him is that, eventually, he found what he was looking for in Baton Rouge. And by looking at that broken road, Mettenberger hopes, some NFL club will find what it's looking for, too.
Lots of players say they were born to play for a certain big-time college program. Few can say it with the conviction Zach Mettenberger once could about Georgia.
He was raised in the shadow of Sanford Stadium. His mother, Tammy, has worked in the Georgia football office for as long as he can remember, meaning young Zach had babysitters -- like Musa Smith and Benjamin Watson -- who also happened to be All-SEC.
Mettenberger says he was a 12-year-old offensive lineman in Watkinsville, a country village of 3,000 on the outskirts of Athens, when he first got the idea he could be an NFL quarterback. He already could throw the ball farther and harder than the 16- and 17-year-olds in town, and with his size and that arm, eventually he'd get the chance to showcase his skills at Oconee County High. By February of his junior year, Mettenberger had committed to Georgia, and he landed in Athens the next January as an early enrollee.
He redshirted in 2009 and competed with classmate Aaron Murray for the starting job the next spring.
And just like that, it all came crashing down. He was accused of groping a woman at a bar in Valdosta during spring break. In April, Georgia coach Mark Richt threw him off the team. In May, he pleaded guilty to two counts of misdemeanor sexual battery and accepted 12 months of probation, a $2,000 fine and 40 hours of community service. By the summer, he was at Butler Community College in Kansas, to play out his redshirt freshman season far away from the bedlam of the SEC.
In the wake of the incident, Mettenberger released a statement in which he apologized to the woman and expressed remorse for his actions. What hit him hardest, though, is how it all reflected on those closest to him.
"I think that was the most difficult thing, just embarrassing my mom," he said. "She's worked there for so long, and the coaches have known her and known me. To do that ... It's one thing to embarrass yourself. People don't realize how much other people love them. And to embarrass the people that love you most, the people that have always been with you, was really the hardest thing for me."
At Butler in 2010, Mettenberger piled up 2,678 passing yards and 32 touchdowns (against just four interceptions), leading the Grizzlies to the JUCO national title game.
And by December, he'd committed to LSU, completing a 10-month cyclone of events that took him from competing for a starting job at an SEC power, then to a community college on the plains, and then back to the SEC again.
"I don't think there was ever a time where I was ready to give up and move on to something else," Mettenberger said. "I never really got that down on myself. But after the incident at Georgia, that was a really trying time, I really had to dig deep to continue to play football."
Mettenberger's growth didn't happen overnight, and everything didn't just change after he was thrown off the team at Georgia. He came to LSU overweight. And even after Miles laid out guidelines for what would be expected, Mettenberger didn't exactly spend 2011 writing a manual on how a backup quarterback should conduct himself.
LSU reeled off a 12-0 regular season and won the SEC title with an underwhelming tandem of Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee under center. There were public cries to give Mettenberger a shot at piloting an otherwise loaded team. The truth was, he hadn't earned that right.
"He went through some things that a lot of guys do," Miles said. "When you're the backup, and not necessarily counted on, it's easy to be in the background, not necessarily apply yourself. Yet, when you turn to that guy, and say, 'It's time, this is your time' ..."
The coach trailed off, then said, "He recognized that, took advantage of it, continued to improve and boom, never looked back."
Mettenberger says the moment did indeed happen right after LSU's BCS title game loss to Alabama, rather than immediately following the tumult of 2010. It was more the result of all he'd seen since leaving Watkinsville three years earlier.
"It was a combination of things," he explained. "It was time for me to step up and be the leader of the team. It was time to be the guy, the face of the program. I wanted to be a face people remembered, not one that people wanted to forget."
Mettenberger knew the spotlight would be shining bright, and a bad decision would be a cell-phone picture away from hitting the front pages of newspapers all over the state.
Conversely, he also was aware that his teammates would be paying closer attention to what he was doing when he was out of the public eye. So he started taking guys out to eat. He became more vocal at practice. He conducted off-the-books film sessions. He immersed himself in LSU football.
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"They all realized, He's one of us," said Marucci, of Mettenberger's teammates. "He became one of the receivers. He became one of the offensive linemen. ... The light went on. He understood, I'm not gonna be going out as much. Everyone's looking at me, so I have to do these things. Deep down, he said he really wanted to do it, he just needed someone to push him there."
Mettenberger sums it up succinctly: "I sit on the blue couch in my house a lot. It can get boring, but being bored is better than being in trouble."
As Miles tells it, those whom Mettenberger didn't win over right then, in early 2012, grew to respect the quarterback after observing his daily work -- and the daredevil manner in which he'd stand firm in the pocket, come hell or Auburn edge rusher, and deliver the ball.
"He was one of the toughest guys on our team," Miles said. "He put his body at risk. He threw balls in the face of the rush and made plays for his team. His style of leadership was, Watch how I play, and play like I do."
Mettenberger showed flashes in 2012 (his 298-yard effort in a close loss to Alabama would've received more attention if not for the inspired Crimson Tide comeback), but the real breakout coincided with Cam Cameron's arrival last offseason -- the marriage of an old-school type of quarterback with a pro-style coach. The new offensive coordinator taught Mettenberger to play with his feet underneath him and to shorten his delivery, telling the quarterback that honing those elements would make the ball come out quicker.
And then he prodded him, as Miles had, to be more vocal. At times in practice, when things took a bad turn, Cameron would tell Mettenberger he wasn't going to say a word, pushing the quarterback to take the initiative in turning around a lazy day.
"You don't want a guy with a beard? He's not your guy. You don't want a guy that's not gonna have the cleanest haircut in the history of the game? He's probably not your guy," Cameron explained. "If you want a guy who's comfortable with how he's been raised -- he's from Georgia, he's tough -- and you want football leadership, you're gonna love Zach Mettenberger. Every team's different. The tough teams, the physical teams will love him. I guarantee it."
Mettenberger wound up posting 3,082 passing yards, 22 touchdowns and eight picks while completing 64.9 percent of his 296 throws in 2013.
It was on the final one of those tosses that things crumbled again. As you might expect, on the play, he stood tall in the pocket, stared down a serious rush, and gave star receiver Jarvis Landry every chance to make a play. In the process, he absorbed a devastating hit to his left knee from Arkansas defensive tackle Bryan Jones.
Marucci knew right away. The coaches did, too. Mettenberger heard the pop.
Mettenberger insisted on leaving the field on his feet, and not on a cart. Later in the day, the diagnosis came in: Grade 3 ACL tear. He'd have to wait for an accompanying MCL tear to scar down before having surgery, further backing up his timetable. And right after the Jan. 2 procedure, he developed a hematoma in his calf, which set him back another eight or nine days.
"So now, the ruminating starts again, the worry: There's no way I'm gonna be ready. No way," Marucci recalled, of Mettenberger's agitated state. "We had to do some counseling there, we had to develop a plan to make him feel comfortable, and said, 'Listen, here's what we're gonna do ...' And we laid out the plan."
First, they drew on track record. LSU's team surgeon, Dr. Brent Bankston, has had success using a piece of the hamstring -- rather than the patella -- to create the graft in replacing the ACL. He cited former Tigers Stevan Ridley and Marcus Randall as examples; both tore ACLs in spring practice and were back on the field for fall camp.
Then there was the timeline. They wanted Mettenberger throwing 30 days after surgery, and they wanted him to be able to drop and roll out by the NFL Scouting Combine, even though he wouldn't be working out in Indianapolis. After six weeks, they put him through a Cybex test, just before the combine, and his left knee was up to 87 percent strength. By his pro day, 97 days after surgery, he tested out at 97 percent strength and threw over 100 balls in a strenuous workout for scouts.
"He wanted an A+," Cameron said. "He didn't hit every throw. We want the ball off the ground. When we practice, we expect the ball not to hit the ground. The ball hit the ground eight, 10 times, so he's gonna say it's less than his best. But considering the circumstances, that was an A workout."
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Mettenberger swears he'll be ready for rookie camp just after the draft -- without any limitations. The day before his pro day, he said, "If the season started tomorrow, I'd definitely be able to suit up, take a hit and keep playing." Marucci agreed, saying he'd clear him to play.
If anything, the knee injury proved to be one more hard turn on a path that looks more like an old post road than an autobahn. Through the twists and turns, he's built up a resiliency. And, to be sure, he's left plenty for NFL teams to dig through.
"I think the way I went through it's probably not the ideal way, but I know how to take the highs and lows," Mettenberger said. "When life's going up and down, I've been able to stay even-keel. Kind of the fighter-pilot mentality of being able to take anything, that's gonna benefit me in the NFL. There's never an easy year in the NFL. One week, you're the hero of the town. The next week, they want your head. It's a tough business, but everything I've been through has prepared me for that."
A few minutes later, the 6-foot-5 gunslinger, now down to 224 pounds, retreated to the Tigers' fieldhouse to throw a baseball around and shoot the breeze with receiver Kadron Boone. After his pro day, Mettenberger hung out to get a little more instruction from Cameron and recap things with his teammates.
It's easy to forget now that he showed up out of shape and with a pocked résumé three years ago.
His hair's still shaggy, and he's still got the beard. But the overall metamorphosis is evident to those who know him best.
"He's gonna leave as a man; he's gonna leave as someone who left a mark at LSU," Marucci said. "He can go in restaurants, and people are proud of him. He's someone I can call a friend now, because he's graduated ... I think he's a guy, we can call him one of our favorites. You don't wanna pick favorites, but he's gonna be one of those guys: We remember No. 8. Heck of a warrior for us, but more importantly, he's been a friend of ours and the program's and he's a guy that's always gonna be welcome."
Mettenberger is home here. This is where he fixed his reputation. It's where he fixed his knee.
And it's where, he hopes, some NFL team will find a way to fix its quarterback position.