WRITTEN BY: ALEX BROWN
As an NFL Draft analyst, scout, writer, or whatever you’d like to call me, it’s very difficult to gage a player’s mental makeup or intangible qualities. In most cases, the intangibles of a given player are generally inflated or deflated based on individual events that are seen by many after some sort of publication. For a scout within an NFL organization, information on a player’s background is readily at hand; for myself at Optimum Scouting, I’m limited to whatever interview material I can access and quotes from coaches, teammates or the player himself.
Thinking about that last bit, I decided to do some interviewing work for myself this draft season to learn more about LSU starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger, who’s made stops in Georgia and Kansas before arriving in Baton Rouge.
To learn more about Mettenberger, I contacted his former head coach Troy Morrell at Butler Community College before the 2013 college football season, his current offensive coordinator at LSU in Cam Cameron in the week preceding LSU’s matchup versus Alabama, in addition to exchanging emails with his mother, Tammy Mettenberger to confirm specifics regarding Zach’s connection to the University of Georgia.
Unraveling a dream job
A reclamation prospect of sorts, Zach began his football career with both promise and high expectations as a four-star recruit that ranked as high as the 11th best quarterback in the 2009 high school recruiting class by Rivals.com. From his days at Oconee County in Watkinsville, Georgia, Mettenberger’s sheer throwing power and arm talent clearly set him apart. Stacking up as a 6’5, 240+ pound big-bodied quarterback, it was obvious why schools such as Boston College, Florida State and Georgia, among others, came clamoring to his door for a commitment.
For Zach, committing and signing with Georgia may have been the fastest decision he’s ever made. Since 1995, Zach’s mother, Tammy Mettenberger has been a University of Georgia employee, and since 1999 she has moreover worked within the football program as an administrative assistant.
In an email response Tammy told me,
“Zach came to his 1st football camp at the age of 7[…] Coach (Mike) Bobo took time with him and showed interest in teaching Zach the fundamentals of football. When Zach was sick, or had appointments in the afternoons, I would let him come to work with me”.
She went on to say that Zach went to “All the Georgia games” and “It (Georgia football) has always been a big part of our life.” Additionally, Zach helped, then-equipment manager, Dave Allen fold towels and pass out things to players. Considering his upbringing around the university, it sure looked like Zach had found a perfect fit.
Still, Mettenberger’s troubles off the field would soon force him to reassess his character and commitment to the game of football. After redshirting his freshman season, Zach narrowly lost the battle for the quarterback position during spring practices for the 2010 season. Everything went downhill after that point with sexual assault charge that has been documented by many media outlets and scrutinized by fans, draft analysts and pundits alike.
The intention of my research was not to look into this past matter, but instead focused on collecting information on what kind of person and player Zach Mettenberger was following the setback, has become at LSU, and what he could be at the NFL level.
Turning Point: El Dorado, Kansas
In speaking with Butler head coach Troy Morrell, the main takeaway was that Mettenberger inserted himself quickly into the locker room and carried a laid-back, country kid attitude. Morrell said he “likes simple things, connected very well with teammates and was just ready to get on the field to play football again.” It’s important to grasp that this was a young player, who just lost his dream job and was booted from his favorite school in the University of Georgia.
Butler Community College served as a real turning point in Mettenberger’s development, as the current Tiger focused primarily on cleaning up his image and excelling on the field. Morrell emphasized that while he can access high-level talents to play for his program at Butler, the difficulty is often keeping the focus on the short term and not looking up to the next level. That wasn’t the case with Zach.
Wanting to improve on function mobility and learning the system, Morrell made no real tweaking to Mettenberger’s mechanics, aside from sharpening footwork in drops. Troy Morrell wanted a pocket passer over a dual threat and said Zach was an ideal, elite fit in his offense. Using multiple personnel groupings and formations, Morrell told me he wanted to fit the offense around Mettenberger like the successful Dallas Cowboys of the 90’s with now-Hall of Fame quarterback, Troy Aikman. With 3-step, 5-step timing and deep play action drops, although the offense may have been different via nomenclature, it’s become clear that Mettenberger began his development in a vertical passing system long before he reached LSU’s campus.
An interesting note regarding Mettenberger is how loose and comfortable he appeared to be during pregame warmups. According to head coach Troy Morrell, the quarterback “kept the mood light” prior to kickoff and showed no signs of nerves, regardless of the setting. In reviewing notes taken during conversations throughout this process, the main takeaway is that Mettenberger most resembles Jay Cutler from a personality standpoint. Despite projecting an aloof persona, he’s an involved, caring teammate that communicates well with coaches and players.
Nevertheless, he wasn’t a finished product –Morrell told me that Zach wasn’t a quarterback in organized football until his freshman year of high school. Due to his size and weight, he had previously been a lineman and tight end. According to the Butler coach, Zach was very intelligent from an X and O standpoint but, “would not take the easy throws, (and) would attempt tougher throws based on certain presnap looks.” This should make sense, as we’re talking about a very talented player going against junior college competition.
Progress Report: Baton Rouge, Louisiana
My second interviewee in Cam Cameron provided much of the same commentary on Mettenberger’s abilities, stating, “He has an innate ability to throw the ball accurately and he has rare arm strength.” Upon first arriving to the scene in LSU to reunite with his former Michigan coaching colleague Les Miles, Cameron noted that Zach needed to “Get his feet underneath him […] (and his current mechanics) placed too much stress on his back and shoulder.” Before jumping headlong into fine tuning his passer, Cameron first wanted to “Make it make sense for him” and explain the “Why?” According to Cam Cameron, “You’ve got to be able to throw with minimal space at both the college and NFL level.” He went on to note that constant repetition in practice and focus on fundamentals has been critical in Zach’s improvement from a consistency standpoint.
There are more than a hundred drills you can do for mechanical issues, but there’s a set of core drills that Cameron uses to measure improvement and accuracy. Beyond running his quarterbacks through these drills where he tracks their progress daily in practice, Cameron adopted current Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell’s accuracy grading system (which he started using in Indianapolis with Peyton Manning). Essentially, Cameron grades every throw of his quarterbacks on an A, B, C, D, and F grade scale.
An “A” throw constitutes an accurate football that does not impede the receiver in any way (basically hitting a guy in stride); a “B” throw has good ball location but forces the runner to break stride in some fashion; a “C” throw is an adjustment reception by the receiver with less than ideal ball placement and impediment to the receiver’s stride; a “D” throw is an incompletion, and an “F” throw is an interception. Drops and throwaways are not counted in the grading process.
Back in early November when I interviewed Cam Cameron, the LSU coordinator told me that Zach was carrying a 3.4 throwing GPA, which is right where he has graded Joe Flacco with the Baltimore Ravens. For a frame of reference to one of the NFL’s most accurate passers and a former pupil, Cameron said Drew Brees would likely be carrying a high 3.7 GPA. To that point in the season (prior to the Alabama game), Zach twice graded lower than a 3.0, with two 2.9 grade games.
In terms of autonomy at the line of scrimmage, I asked Cam about the amount of responsibility he’s tasked his quarterback with. Cameron continually stated that his system is no different than it has been in his NFL offenses. “On any given night we could audible 70% of the time or 10% of the time.” Cameron went on to say, “The thought process begins with a ‘CARI’ approach –‘Call And Run It’. Every week is a different obviously, but there have been no limitations with Cameron’s audible system as Zach is “extremely football smart.”
What’s the difference in 2012 and 2013 Mettenberger?
Before detailing a two-fold process that helped his quarterbacks and receivers improve this year, Cameron emphasized that the aging of Zach and the receiving corps has as much to do with the improvements as anything else, as the group lacked a great deal of experience a season ago. Cameron said that neither Zach nor the receivers blame one another and there’s a constant flow of communication.
The two changes that led to LSU’s passing success were 1) Streamlined Routes and 2) Simplified progression system for Zach.
As for the first change, new wide Receivers coach Adam Henry, who had spent the last five years on the Oakland Raiders coaching staff, has helped implement the streamlined, vertical routes. Cameron explicitly stated that he operates from within the Don Coryell passing tree, with “No shake and bake, just straight vertical lines. This [passing tree] helps to improve the timing of the quarterback and allows him to know where his man is going to be at all times.”
The second change that has left a profound impact on Mettenberger’s play has been a simplified approach. “I’ve taught Zach to throw the ball like he would in his backyard.” Cameron said. “The ‘A’ throws are great but it’s not realistic that every pass is going to be an ‘A’ grade.” Cameron’s simple but effective strategy basically says, “Just throw to your guy and away from their guy.” In essence, Cameron allows his quarterbacks to play instinctively as they used to in backyard football. This is an approach that another one of Cameron’s pupils, Scott Loeffler at Michigan instilled in New England Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady.
Cam Cameron’s Preparation Schedule and Bob Knight’s influence
When I asked Cameron about how his quarterback learns in the film room, whether visually or by note or on his own or with Cameron himself, the response given was “All of the above… I don’t give my quarterbacks an option.”
“With all of the technology out there today (Cameron previously referenced how LSU uses iPads for cutups and film study), there’s no reason for a quarterback not to be prepared unless they’re flat out lazy.” Interestingly enough, Cam Cameron has patterned his preparation schedule after the schedule he followed as an Indiana basketball player under Hall of Fame head coach Bob Knight -1) the coach and player sit down for film study alone 2) the player must watch the film on his own 3) finally, the note taking is a must, with everything completed by hand. “It’s the same preparation schedule I’ve used in the NFL” according to Cameron, and the quarterbacks absolutely must watch and evaluate practice film before he meets with them.
As the conversation continued, I brought up how much I’ve been impressed with his quarterback’s ability to stand in the pocket under duress, “stare down the gun barrel” and deliver the ball while taking a hit. In asking how that onfield toughness translates into leadership Cameron responded by saying, “There is no way you can lead an offense, or an organization for that matter, without toughness. With Zach you can’t fault his toughness.
“He’s built tough and you can see it in his parents. I think that’s why guys respect him.”
NFL Potential and Future Outlook
When I started to discuss how Mettenberger had shown glimpses of greatness in his junior tape but consistency was the limiting issue, he immediately agreed and brought up a Steve McNair quote. The former All-Pro was asked what he valued as the most important trait to successful quarterbacking and responded with a single word – “consistency.” Cameron continually called Mettenberger a “consistent worker” and “outstanding practice player that will go 38-38, 42-42, or even 44-44 in a day’s given practice.” Taking into consideration the high difficulty throws Mettenberger is required to make in this offense, I was extremely impressed when Cameron said that the ball doesn’t hit the ground often.
As for discussing the scouting of quarterbacks and projecting them to the NFL level, Cameron said that there is more of an emphasis on answering the quarterback position in the short run, as the new CBA has lowered the financial obligations tied to individual draft picks. He went on to say, “Zach is only about 60% of where he’s going to be. His mechanics will continue to get better and better and better.” For a frame of reference, he also said Joe Flacco was about 50% of where he was going to be when the Ravens used a first rounder on him and that Philip Rivers was about 80% of where he was going to be when the Chargers acquired him.
In closing, Cameron said “If you like what you see now, you’re going to see an even greater window of potential down the line […] I cannot say enough good things about him. He is special, at least in my book.”
Currently recovering from a torn ACL he suffered in his final home game, Mettenberger is on track to throw and workout in some capacity at LSU’s pro day. A few teams do not have Mettenberger on their draft boards due to concerns about the Georgia past, but I personally would not have any reservations about spending a day two draft selection on Mettenberger. He understood then, and understands now, that the only way to change perception is to conduct himself professionally and without reproach from here on out.
So while there remains uncertainty about just where he’ll be taken in the 2014 draft, it is safe to say that his status as a next level quarterback looks promising, despite the rough beginnings at Georgia.