|Quarterback Zach Mettenberger :: US PRESSWIRE|
It is a horror show that still flickered in his mind, frame by frame, play by play. Four months after LSU was thumped by Alabama 21-0 in the BCS national title game, Les Miles sat in his office in Baton Rouge, still trying to digest all that happened that night in New Orleans. "We would do things differently if we could, obviously," Miles said. "That game is a constant reminder to us that we need to get better and that we need to revamp a few things and tweak a few things.
"But I'll tell you this," Miles added, "I really, really, really like this team. We have got some incredible talent here."
Yes, they do. Though LSU lost 10 starters from a team that held the nation's No. 1 ranking for most of last season and tied a school record with 13 wins, the 2012 Tigers are loaded with former four-and five-star recruits -- a testament to Miles's ability to entice elite high school players to Baton Rouge. The offense will feature quarterback Zach Mettenberger, the best passer Miles has had, as well as heavy doses of barreling running back Spencer Ware, who will be operating behind one of the SEC's most skillful offensive lines.
Twelve of the top 22 players on the LSU defensive depth chart last season were either freshmen or sophomores, which means the Tigers' D will be more mature and -- perhaps -- even better than it was in 2011, when it finished second in the nation in total defense. The front line features two projected NFL players (junior ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo), though the secondary is looking for a new leader after the shocking early August dismissal of Tyrann (Honey Badger) Mathieu, who was a threat to score anytime he intercepted a ball, recovered a fumble or returned a punt.
"We have the ability to be a more dominating defense than we were last season," said junior free safety Eric Reid, a potential first-round NFL draft pick. "I get asked about the BCS game all the time, people wanting to know what happened. And I always say the same thing: We got beat, simple as that."
Then Reid uses just the kind of words that Miles wants to hear: "We're using it for motivation," Reid said. "We're hungry to get back to the title game and get a different result."
Can LSU replace the game-changing impact of Tyrann Mathieu, who was a difference-maker on defense and special teams?
5.49 -- Passing yards per attempt allowed by LSU's defense, third best in the nation behind Alabama and South Carolina.
Eric Reid, FS, Jr. -- Reid appears to be the next in a line of prototypical defensive backs at LSU, after Patrick Peterson and Morris Claiborne. At 6-foot-2, 208 pounds, Reid tied with Tyrann Mathieu for the team lead in tackles in 2011 (76). This is likely Reid's last season in Baton Rouge.
Russell Shepard, WR, Sr. -- With Rueben Randle gone to the NFL, Shepard becomes a key part of the passing game. Though limited to 14 receptions last year, Shepard was second on the team with four TD catches and, at 6-foot-1, 185 pounds, is one of the most explosive players on the roster.
Brad Wing, P, So. -- Wing led the SEC in percentage of punts downed inside the 20-yard line (46 percent) and averaged 44.1 yards. The rugby-style punter from Melbourne, Australia, gives the Tigers a special teams advantage every game.
Sam Montgomery, DE, Jr. -- The 6-foot-5, 280-pounder managed 49 tackles and nine sacks last season and will be an even more integral part of the D-line this year.
Spencer Ware, RB, Jr.. -- The LSU coaching staff has great expectations for Ware, a 5-foot-11, 223-pounder who started 10 games in 2011 and rushed for 700 yards. With LSU's improved passing attack, Ware won't face so many eight- and nine-man fronts, which should translate into a big year for the former high school quarterback from Cincinnati.
Kwon Alexander, LB, Fr. -- It's not often that a coveted recruit from Alabama spurns the Crimson Tide and Auburn, but that's what Alexander did by signing with LSU. The 6-foot-2, 220-pound Alexander is speedy -- he recently ran the 40 in 4.51 seconds.
He didn't leave his off-campus apartment very often this spring. Other than attending practice, heading to throwing sessions with his wide receivers and occasionally enjoying dinner at a Buffalo Wild Wings with "the Fab Five" -- his name for those wideouts -- Zach Mettenberger kept a low profile in Baton Rouge. That was his plan. "I just stayed home and didn't do anything to put myself out there," Mettenberger said. "I'm doing everything I can to be the guy that can make plays and lead this team to an undefeated season."
Mettenberger certainly looks the part of a big-time quarterback. At 6-foot-5 and 222 pounds he has NFL size. The Tigers' staff raves about Mettenberger's arm strength and accuracy, and Les Miles is so smitten with his QB that he's planning to incorporate more mid- and long-range passes into LSU's offense in 2012. But along with the physical gifts came problems. Miles admits he had reservations about offering Mettenberger a scholarship because of the quarterback's background.
In March 2010, Mettenberger, then in his second year at Georgia, was arrested and charged with, among lesser charges, sexual battery of a woman at a bar in Remerton, Ga. Mettenberger pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of sexual battery. He was sentenced to two concurrent 12-month probationary periods, ordered to pay $2,000 in fines and perform 40 hours of community service. That April he was dismissed from the team.
When pleading guilty, Mettenberger apologized publicly to "the young lady my actions most directly affected." He added, "I deeply regret my actions of that night and ... I intend to do everything in my power to ... rebuild the trust people had in me."
For Mettenberger, those steps were a start. He spent the 2010 season at Butler (Kans.) Community College, where he threw 32 TDs (with only four picks) and led Butler to the juco national championship game. After the season several recruiting services named Mettenberger the top-ranked junior college quarterback. He got scholarship offers from, among others, Alabama, Texas A&M and Arkansas. Though Miles rarely recruits juco players, he offered Mettenberger a scholarship after several lengthy conversations. "We did our homework and met with Zach and talked to people in Georgia," the coach said. "He was remorseful. We came to the conclusion he deserved a second chance."
Said Mettenberger, "I chose LSU because I wanted to go to a place where we had a shot at the national title. When I got here on my visit, the fan support was amazing. It was an easy decision."
Last season for LSU, Mettenberger threw only 11 passes in five games and watched the quarterback combination of Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee struggle. Now Miles believes that Mettenberger -- a former four-star prospect from Oconee County High in Watkinsville, Ga. -- can thrive in the SEC. "Zach has taken on a leadership role," Miles said. "He knows his number is going to be called, and he's responding. We saw that he was a great teammate at Butler, and that's what he's been here. He's learned a lesson or two, and he's ready to have a big season."
"Zach can put the ball in places I've never seen," said safety Eric Reid. "He always seems to put it to where only the wide receiver can get it. I got frustrated this spring because we weren't making as many plays in the secondary as we did in the past because Zach was so on. He's extremely talented."
And, to be sure, he's extremely ready to move on from his past.
SI: Are you over losing to Alabama in the BCS title game?
LM: All losses hurt. I'm still hurt over losing to Kentucky in '07.
SI: So what's the takeaway from how you wound up?
LM: We were 13-1 last season. We won the SEC West, which at one time had the top three ranked teams in the polls in the country. Now we're looking forward to playing in the national title game again this season. We fully expect to be there.
SI: What have been the keys to building your program into a power?
LM: Expectations. How we prepare. Every coach and player here expects to play for championships. Our program is about victory.
SI: What is it that most fans do not understand about your job?
LM: The incredibly long hours. We get in early, we stay late. The hours it takes to have a memorized game plan and memorized play-by-play are incredible.
SI: To what do you credit the SEC West's phenomenal success the past six years?
LM: We're in a spot that lets us recruit at a high level. Players like to play against the best teams, so our division has become very attractive to the top high school players.
SI: What's it like going to your 14-year-old's football practices?
LM: I really enjoy it. I don't give tips to the coaches. They know their players. I'm a fan and that's it.
This team preview originally appeared in Sports Illustrated Presents' SEC Preview.