Zach Mettenberger loosens, true freshmen shine and defensive players boast a chip on their shoulders for the LSU Tigers in the first week of fall camp.
"Faster." "More uptempo." "Controlled chaos." All of these are words Zach Mettenberger, Travis Dickson, Alfred Blue and Kenny Hilliard say often when describing the new direction implemented by offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.
Cameron and Mettenberger's Relationship
Early Monday morning, the Tigers jog to different locations on the practice fields, which are separated by position groups. Cameron is the loudest of the shouting coaches.
“I need the quarterbacks over here,” Cameron instructs.
Mettenberger trots to his offensive coordinator with a grin. After going through the ball-security and agility drills, Mettenberger gets to do what he does best—sling the football.
He drops back, sets his feet and thrusts his arm forward, showcasing his strong arm. A line drive whistles in the air and finds the hands of LSU wide receiver Jarvis Landry. Cameron approves and tells Mettenberger that’s exactly what he likes to see.
“That’s a good ball, Zach!” Cameron praises. “Good job!”
“Alright Zach, I want to see the best drop-back in division football.”
Mettenberger shuffles his feet quickly, plants and delivers a perfectly placed ball to a sprinting Odell Beckham.
“Zach, perfect,” Cameron says. “That’s perfect.”
After practice, Mettenberger entertains the media. A media member asks if he has lost weight, as he points out the more compact look Mettenberger sported at practice.
“Y’all say this every year. Am I just a fat piece of crap?” Mettenberger asks.
Turns out Mettenberger’s the same weight as a year ago, but for “some reason,” and Mettenberger emphasizes the unknown reasoning for it, he wore a bigger jersey last year.
A media member, admittedly myself, asks him about changes in the scheme and whether we will see talents such as DeSean Smith and Dickson utilized more in the passing game in a dual tight end set.
“We’ll see, man. I can’t be giving you all the answers, guys. It’s day one!”
Yes, it’s day one, and Mettenberger is more relaxed and more poised than he’s ever been. He gives credit where credit is due—he acknowledges the presence of Cameron.
“He’s helping me become a better leader,” Mettenberger says.
The Chip on the Defense's Shoulder
Anthony Johnson stands in LSU’s indoor practice facility with an intimidating grimace. It's not an imposed stare inflicted by Johnson, rather it's a natural gaze that sets a serious tone.
“I’m ready to show the world what they’ve been waiting for,” Johnson says.
He is all business. He accepts the leadership position and encourages the naysayers to keep running their mouths. Johnson, who produced 10 tackles for loss and three sacks one year ago, takes joy in watching people underestimate his Tigers.
"I like the rope-a-dope,” says Johnson with a menacing laugh. “I like when nobody sees it coming. I’m looking forward to this season.”
His partner in crime on defense, Lamin Barrow, feels the same way. Barrow, who recorded 104 tackles last season, attempts to ignore preseason rankings, such as the No. 13 positioning of the Tigers in the USA Today Coaches Poll, but he can’t help but see it. He, like Johnson, takes delight in being the underdog.
“It’s a lot of food that we can eat,” Barrow says.
In the eyes of both men, it’s apparent—they’re itching for the start of the season. The fact that they admit observations of the impertinent rankings before the season gives a hint of a growing passion inside of them. They don’t like being disrespected, and being placed behind five SEC schools in the first preseason poll has them constantly fidgeting with their hands.
To quote a repeating Barrow and Johnson, the members of the defense are "excited" and "can't wait" to prove their worth.
Barrow is a prime candidate to replace Kevin Minter, who recorded 130 tackles for the Tigers at the Mike position. Barrow admits that he’s more comfortable at the Will, and he believes that D.J. Welter is going to surprise many and possibly earn the starting Mike position. Welter played in just one game last season, but he had an impressive spring.
He's going to have to beat out Lamar Louis, though, who is also practicing at the Mike position. He collected 13 tackles as a true freshman in 2012.
Other intriguing position battles taking place are Dickson and Smith at tight end, Jerald Hawkins and Vadal Alexander at right tackle, Tre'Davious White and Rickey Jefferson for roles in the defensive backfield and Lewis Neal and Danielle Hunter at defensive end. Barrow marvels at Hunter's physique.
“That guy is built like a robot,” Barrow says. “Veins are popping everywhere.”
While there are many young defensive tackles lobbying for playing time, such as true freshman Christian LaCouture, who practiced with the varsity squad on the first day of fall camp, Barrow suggests that the veteran defensive linemen will earn the starting positions.
“Everybody knows Anthony Johnson, but I think Ego Ferguson is going to shock a lot of people. His work ethic is tremendous,” Barrow says.
And, of course, Jeremy Hill was present. Hill rejoined the team Monday after Judge Bonnie Jackson extended his probation Monday morning rather than revoking it for violating probation in a bar-fight incident.
The team voted to have Hill reinstated, and now he's in an extremely competitive position battle at running back, as Alfred Blue is no longer sporting a green jersey and Kenny Hilliard has shied away from the fast food and red beans and rice over the summer. Both are in remarkable shape.
Glancing over different groups at practice, media members unfold their roster sheets and search for unrecognizable numbers. “Who’s 24?” “Fifty-two? Wait, that’s Kendell Beckwith? What’s he doing over here?”
As different receivers/tight ends/utility players run from sideline to sideline catching balls while contorting their bodies 180 degrees and running full speed, names such as Beckwith, Jefferson and Smith gleam.
Beckwith, who will likely play linebacker for the Tigers, catches nearly every pass thrown in his direction and turns upfield with spectacular acceleration. Jefferson, who is listed as a defensive back, follows behind Beckwith, showcasing his raw, undeniable athletic ability.
Then there’s Smith. Smith runs from one sideline to the next, twisting and turning in opposite directions, catching one pass after another. Smith is a true freshman tight end who received major hype entering the fall. He is worthy of it all. Smith runs the drill three times and drops only one ball, a feat only Smith can claim on this day.
Meanwhile, true freshmen Neal and LaCouture generate a buzz on the defensive end of the practice field. Size, speed and athleticism place them in a perfect position to contribute immediately.
These are the players that catch the media’s eyes. All the while, Johnson applauds White, wide receiver John Diarse and quarterback Anthony Jennings.
Lamin Barrow says it best.
“We’re so deep right now, it’s crazy.”
Jake Martin is a Featured Columnist of Bleacher Report and a contributor for the The Sun Herald in Biloxi, Miss. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand or from official interview materials from The Sun Herald.