Senior Writer

In Jefferson, the Tigers don't exactly trust


BATON ROUGE, La. -- You can almost spot the holes in Jordan Jefferson's game from the nearby Mississippi River Bridge.

The structure that carries I-10 East over the Father of Waters is close enough to LSU's Tiger Stadium (OK, two miles) to see the son of a gun do it again: Miss receivers. Fumble. Make another bad decision. The bridge over troubled matters -- at least at quarterback for LSU -- is merely a symbol. In a moment of reflection, it is the Tigers' senior quarterback who makes the obvious point.

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"Coming from my sophomore year to my junior year, I felt like my junior year was a decline," Jefferson said.

The statistics will support him. The detractors will, well, detract with a collective, "Well, duh!" LSU won 11 games last year with a quarterback who finished 92nd in pass efficiency (the NCAA only ranks 100 players). For the first time in his career, Jefferson threw more interceptions than touchdowns. He was less accurate. LSU's passing offense was last in the SEC.

Jefferson has heard it on more than one occasion as LSU has chased that 2007 national championship like a junkie looking for the next high: We'd be better if we just had a quarterback.

"I hear that a lot," he said.

The cry isn't likely to die down after Saturday's spring game at LSU. The loudest ovations from a sun-splashed crowd of 25,000 were for a) LSU's All-Americans honored at halftime and b) insertion of Georgia transfer Zach Mettenberger at quarterback. Both occurrences are understandable. Most fans value the past and future over the present in such situations, especially if -- presently -- the Tigers' quarterback situation is uncertain.

Mettenberger has already been anointed "The Mett-siah", a sophomore with promise and Newton-like measurables (6-foot-5, 250 pounds), a gift dropped into the laps of the Tigers. Mettenberger is here only because he was kicked off Georgia's team a year ago. He eventually pleaded guilty to misdemeanor sexual assault after being arrested outside a Valdosta, Ga.-area bar. A judge said Mettenberger touched the breasts and buttocks of a female student.

But boy can he light up a stadium. Mettenberger's 60-yard touchdown pass to Kadron Boone to start the second half almost looked staged. It was the only scoring throw by any of the three quarterbacks.

Tigers fans have anointed transfer Zach Mettenberger 'The Mett-siah'. (US Presswire)  
Tigers fans have anointed transfer Zach Mettenberger 'The Mett-siah'. (US Presswire)  
Jefferson? He's a member of the Upright Citizen's Brigade off the field, but as long he keeps going 4-for-14 -- those were his numbers Saturday -- Jefferson will be the one under suspicion. Despite a performance that included two fumbles, an interception and being sacked, he is entrenched at No. 1 going into the fall. There has to be a reason that The Mett-siah remained No. 3 on the depth chart and the 92nd-rated passer of 2010 remains No. 1.

"Body of work," coach Les Miles said.

"Definitely," Jefferson said. "I've been here for three years. That kind of gets the edge on everything. My overall performance has definitely been fine."

There has been some momentum established. Forgetting Saturday, Jefferson did have a fine spring -- four touchdowns in one scrimmage. He is coming off an encouraging Cotton Bowl where he threw for three touchdowns and ran for another against Texas A&M. Up to that point, most damning was the feeling that perhaps Jefferson wasn't being trusted. In eight of the Tigers' 13 games in 2010, he threw less than 18 times. At times it almost seemed that LSU was winning despite him, not because of him.

"It may have been trust issues," Jefferson theorized.

If that was the case, how do you truly evaluate Saturday's spring game? It comes with the usual disclaimer: Come fall, there's every chance that none of what occurred may matter. New offensive coordinator Steve Kragthorpe kept things vanilla lest any of the millions who watched on ESPNU were rival SEC coaches. Fifteen players missed Saturday's action.

But the performance will do nothing to douse the Fire Jordan fire. Tigers fans don't want to hear he was playing with a sprained thumb. A year ago in this game, Jefferson did himself no favors with the populace. He missed on 15 of 23 throws and was sacked four times.

"We only had three receivers going on both teams," Jefferson recalled. "Those guys were worn out. My timing was off a little bit. After that, I caught a lot of heat from it, so now I know. The spring game is definitely not just a regular little game. It's beyond importance."

"I really wasn't in the best situations at times," Jefferson said of 2010. "It's kind of hard to be successful when you're in a third-and-six situation. That puts you in a situation you have to complete a 10-, 12-yard pass. That's kind of hard for any quarterback to do. If you [convert] 20 percent of that, that's almost good."

"Some games we were open to throw the ball. Some games I only threw the ball 10 times. I really don't even know why it was like that last year. I just want it to be consistent. If we're throwing 20 times a game, every game, keep it like that. To me, there were a lot of questions I could have asked or a lot of other things I should have questioned."

When Miles heard that what his quarterback might have been questioning was the play calling, that wasn't necessarily a bad thing. For one, it indicates Jefferson has a pulse.

"I think he practiced to practice at times," Miles said. "He's much different than that now."

Former offensive coordinator Gary Crowton was a victim of Jefferson's lack of progress. In Crowton's first season, LSU won that national championship. Since then, he had become a message board meeting place for everything that was wrong offensively for the Tigers. Kragthorpe, a former Tulsa and Louisville head coach, was hired on the rebound. After being fired by the Cardinals following the 2009 season, he took a year off to care for his wife who was dealing with medical issues.

"He's almost a little bit shy," Kragthorpe said of Jefferson. "When you first meet him, you're wondering, 'Does this guy have his paws up kind of feeling you back?' He's just shy. He's not that way around his teammates. I think he's got a chance to be a good player."

A chance, after three seasons of uneven play? Some of us need to be motivated, challenged, threatened with the loss of a job, told we suck, before we respond. Jefferson's starting job was hanging in the balance at the beginning of spring practice. He had to know that. He survived, for now. There's no guarantee he'll keep the job after fall drills.

"I don't necessarily say it's over," said backup Jarrett Lee, who once threw 16 interceptions as a redshirt freshman but now looks as solid as any of the LSU quarterbacks.

Jefferson's biggest threat enrolled at the semester. Mettenberger, like Newton, arrived as a No. 1 JUCO prospect. Last season he threw 32 touchdowns against only four interceptions for Butler County (Kan.) Community College. While he has three years of eligibility and plenty of promise remaining, Mettenberger is still third on the depth chart. Who knows about his ability to check off at the line against an SEC blitz? At first glance on Saturday, his balls seemed to linger in the air a bit too long.

"My goal," Jefferson said, "is to be on the field every rep, not taking a rep off."

If that happens then those of us who have LSU as the preseason No. 1, will look like Stephen Hawking (genius!) with a crystal football.

If that happens then don't be shocked. Don't forget the Tigers have won two national championships with a pair of Matts at quarterback (Mauck and Flynn) who weren't exactly athletic specimens. Remember, this is the school that got the best out of JaMarcus Russell. This is one of the few programs that could suffer the loss of its leading rusher (Stevan Ridley) as well as three defensive stars (Drake Nevis, Patrick Peterson and Kelvin Sheppard) and still start in the top five.

"I think it's a mistake to pick anybody No. 1 until about the fifth game of the year," Miles said.

"I think that's a good ranking for us," Jefferson said.

Maybe that's the difference. Jefferson is good at handling all the crap the best. If an ill-timed throw doesn't rattle him, a well-aimed Twitter bomb sure as hell won't. The man is proud that his best play last year might have been being the lead blocker on a fourth-and-1 reverse against Alabama. Crazy Les meet Determined Jordan.

"That just let me know the play was somewhat dependent on me," said Jefferson who was reminded that, as bad as he has been at times, a 20-7 record as a starter isn't, well, bad.

"I'm trying to make it 33-7 after this year."

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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