LSU has firmly inserted itself into the BCS championship discussion through four weeks of the season. Unlike years past, folks are not just talking about the defense in 2013. This year, LSU's offense is good enough to scare people.
That starts with the transformation of quarterback Zach Mettenberger.
Mettenberger, a senior, has made LSU's offense dangerous and has seen his name shoot up draft boards.
The change can be traced back to one figure: Cam Cameron. Les Miles' offseason acquisition of Cameron, the longtime NFL coordinator and former Miami Dolphins head coach, has worked wonders for the Tigers offense, especially its quarterback.
In an SEC coaches teleconference before LSU's Week 4 Auburn game, Miles commented on Mettenberger's emergence (via The Times-Picayune): "This quarterback is more leadership, more strategic, a thinking-man's position. I think he's enjoying it greatly. Some of the things we do are similar and some are completely different (than last year). I think Cam's having a real impact."
The transition for Mettenberger has been a multifaceted metamorphosis. The move has not been simply a fix of the quarterback's mechanics or a change of offensive system to create video game-like scores.
Rather, the first step in the transition has been quite simple: Establish a plan on offense.
Your Best 11 talked about LSU's plan following the TCU game, and through three additional contests, Cameron has held true to that same plan. Although LSU is still operating out of the same 21, 12 and 11 personnel sets, Cameron is getting more out of those looks and putting pressure on defenses. That has been critical in Mettenberger's development.
This is a simple play, but simplicity is part of why Mettenberger has improved this season. It's a 2nd-and-goal pass to Odell Beckham on a one-man route that is wide open in the end zone. An easy toss by Mettenberger is a result of the eight-play drive that created the opportunity against Kent State.
LSU lined up 10 times on this drive. One play was negated due to a false start, and seven out of nine plays were runs. Terrence McGee and Alfred Blue split the carries and gained 56 yards on the drive. Cameron mixed in one pass, and Mettenberger hit tight end Travis Dickson in the seam for a 28-yard gain.
It is not just the frequency of the runs called that set up the play-action touchdown; it is the use of personnel. Beckham and Dickson were wide open as a function of the repeated use of run personnel during the drive.
The first eight plays saw LSU line up in 21 personnel, run the ball six times in a row, toss to Dickson in the seam and then run the ball again in an effort to punch it in.
On the eighth play, LSU comes out with 22 personnel, a sure run set, especially on second down with just over five yards to go for the end zone.
Kent State loads up the box, and Mettenberger gives a play-action fake that keeps the defender in the box. Then the quarterback throws an easy pass for a touchdown. Beckham runs off the cornerback as he would on any run play at the goal line and then comes back to the ball for the score.
The seam and the comeback are easy throws for the big-armed quarterback to make. The defense was so consumed with the run that there was little pressure on Mettenberger and his targets were open.
That use of run and pass to manipulate the defense has been instrumental in the quarterback's improvement.
Trust has also helped Mettenberger improve in his second year as a starter—trust in his own abilities, trust in his receivers and, most importantly, a trust from the team that the new coach's plan would work to maximize everyone's potential.
At the core, when everyone in the boat believes, things can truly work out great.
The trust is very real, as evident when Mettenberger pushes the ball to his targets with confidence, believing that Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry and Kadron Boone will come down with the football. As long as the ball gets to them on time, LSU's receivers have the advantage.
That stems from a trust in the plan and the players.
Here you see Mettenberger work the quick play-action fake, get to the top of his drop, check his first read and then know immediately where to go with the football—to Jarvis Landry. Mettenberger puts the ball in a spot where only Landry can make the grab with enough zip to beat the safety.
Cam Cameron is giving Mettenberger confidence through working the plan. The receivers are reinforcing Mettenberger's belief in them by making the tough grabs. And Mettenberger is returning that trust by doing exactly what he needs to do in the pass game.
All of these elements work in concert to create the biggest shift in Zach Mettenberger from 2012 to the 2013 season: assertiveness.
The senior knows where he wants to go with the football when he reaches the top of his drop. The ball comes out hot, and he lets his receivers do the rest. In the play-action game, the new, more assertive nature is the most evident.
Here Mettenberger lines up in the previously mentioned 21 personnel, knowing that the defense will be keying the run. The quarterback turns his back entirely to the line of scrimmage to sell the play fake before setting up and drilling a strike to Beckham in a small window.
If the ball comes late, it is an incompletion, likely an interception by the safety closing from the middle of the field. If the ball sails or is just inaccurate, Beckham becomes a big target for the safety to clean up with a hit.
Yet, in a small window, Mettenberger stands tall in the pocket off of play action and delivers. That was a hit-or-miss situation in 2012.
LSU has an offensive plan. LSU's players believe in the plan that new coordinator Cam Cameron has set before them. LSU's players believe in the passing game. The receivers believe the coaches will call plays to get them open, and that the quarterback can, and will, get the ball to them.
And the quarterback is doing just that.
For Mettenberger, on the individual level, he is more crisp, more comfortable, more accurate and more decisive. His coaching staff has empowered him, and while he showed flashes of potential in 2012, this year, equipped with a plan, the senior is putting it together consistently in a major way.