By LUKE JOHNSON
Tiger Rag Assistant Editor
LSU fullback Connor Neighbors’ mission this week is to concoct an unholy brew of the most hateful, inappropriate and vile commentary he can before unleashing it on close friend Zach Mettenberger.
Really, he’s doing it out of the kindness of his heart.
"I’m going to heckle him throughout the whole week so when game day comes around he’s used to it,” Neighbors said. "I’m going to talk smack all week long so he can drown it out.”
A sardonic Mettenberger said he appreciated his friend’s actions, but in reality he could use the help. Consider it an addendum to the normal practice schedule.
Georgia fans are expected to have a special amount of hostility ready for Mettenberger this weekend as he returns to play between the hedges for the first time since the Bulldogs dismissed him from the program in 2010. The terms of his dismissal are expected to provide the fodder for fans’ animosity.
"Considering my background, they’re probably going to be a little rougher on me,” Mettenberger said. "I’m expecting the worst, but I’ve just got to go in there level-headed and play football.”
Mettenberger dreamed of playing for Georgia when growing up, at Neighbors’ estimation, five minutes from the Georgia campus. That dream vanished when he pled guilty to two counts of misdemeanor sexual battery.
It was the best of times, then the worst of times.
Now he’s coming back to Athens, albeit not wearing the uniform he thought he would. And he’s coming back in style, leading an unexpectedly potent offensive attack.
Back to the best of times again.
He’s ranked second in the league in touchdown passes (10) and third in passing yards (1,026) and is well on his way to surpassing his totals from his first year at the reigns of the LSU offense.
His success has done nothing but ramp up the hype machine that’s been waiting for this week to arrive. Mettenberger, for one, can’t wait for it to pass.
"I’m looking forward to Sunday morning tremendously,” Mettenberger said as he was surrounded by 15 reporters wielding cameras and digital recorders. He then paused a moment to gather his thoughts and find the right phrasing.
"There’s so much put into this game that has nothing to do with the game that actually goes between the snap and the whistle. The worst part is my mom has to deal with a lot of this stuff, too.”
At least his mother, an assistant in the Georgia football office, has been able to avoid harassing calls from media members while at work thanks to some help from Georgia coach Mark Richt. She received the last two weeks off, presumably to give her an escape from probing reporters.
Mettenberger isn’t afforded that respite.
He spent roughly 10 minutes with members of the print media before being herded to talk to members of the TV media to spend another 10 minutes answering all the same questions.
He answered many with his typical brand of sarcasm.
Reporter: How different are you from the guy who was competing for the Georgia starting quarterback job four years ago?
Mettenberger: "I didn’t have facial hair and I had a buzz cut.”
Reporter: Have your parents told you to ignore the crowd?
Mettenberger: "Neither of my parents played in an SEC stadium.”
But the sarcastic façade can’t veil the fact that Mettenberger has grown since he arrived on campus before the 2011 season. The young man that got in trouble in a Valdosta, Ga., bar is, by all accounts, far removed from the current LSU quarterback.
Whether it was the incident and subsequent dismissal being a fork-in-the-road event, or the maturity that naturally comes with age, Mettenberger now serves as an example for others to emulate according to his coach.
"He has earned so much with us,” said LSU coach Les Miles. "He’s so accountable, so committed, giving great effort and leadership. All he has to do is go and do the things that we’ve asked him to do and be proud of what all he’s accomplished, what all he’s about to accomplish.”
Maybe it’s a blessing that he did not have to face his former team until his final collegiate season when he’s better prepared for the media’s questions and the criticism from opposing fans.
"He’s matured a lot through the years,” Neighbors said. "Maybe two years ago, the young boy in him would’ve gotten pissed off at the world. But he’s mature. He’s a leader now.
"Sometimes you’ve got to take it on the chin and brush it off your shoulders.”
So Neighbors will get him ready, whether he likes it or not. Neighbors has actually accompanied Mettenberger back to his native land and met some of the people there.
They were nice people, he said. But those aren’t the type of people he expects to show on game day.
"You’d be surprised how many people embrace him with open arms,” Neighbors said. "He’s still a regular person. It’s not like people come out of nowhere and start heckling him.
"But fans are different. They want you to know what you’ve done wrong in the past.”
That doesn’t seem to concern Mettenberger, whose exterior looks about as unflappable as they come. That might be a product of his personality, and it might help him deal with his less-than-warm welcome home party.
"I think just being myself, kind of how I carry myself every day, makes it a lot easier this week,” Mettenberger said.
He continued by saying he didn’t put more importance on this week than any other week, sticking by the old "just another game” cliché.
That might encapsulate Mettenberger’s genuine feelings, but Neighbors isn’t buying it.
"It’s bittersweet, but it’s more sweet than bitter if you play it right,” Neighbors said.