ATHENS -- The other day, Blake Sailors, a senior on the Georgia football team, saw a message pop up on his phone.
It was Zach Mettenberger, checking in.
“Well, it’s UGA week,” Mettenberger wrote, according to Sailors.
“Yup, it is,” Sailors said, and left it at that. “I didn’t really have anything else to add.”
It’s been more than three years since Mettenberger departed Georgia, having been dismissed after a couple off-field incidents. Now he’s set to return as LSU’s starting quarterback in a matchup of top-10 teams, and the occasion has been a chance to rehash his departure and delve into what might have been.
What would have happened if Mettenberger had been able to stay on the team in 2010 and continue his competition with Aaron Murray? How different would history be, both at Georgia and LSU?
Perhaps it would be different, but this much is agreed on: One of the quarterbacks was going to leave, and Mettenberger’s dismissal might have only hastened the inevitable.
“I doubt both of us would have stayed,” Murray said Tuesday. “I’m sure one of us probably would have left, and you’d be talking to him right now and I’d be at LSU or another squad.”
It probably would have been Mettenberger leaving anyway. Murray actually finished spring practice in 2010 slightly ahead of Mettenberger. Neither was ever anointed the starter, but Murray was going to have the edge heading into preseason practice.
Sailors, who was a high school teammate of Mettenberger, thinks that even if his old friend hadn’t been dismissed he would have ended up transferring anyway.
“He had a good spring game that game, I don’t think anybody can argue that. I think Murray was ahead of him at the time anyway,” Sailors said. “If (Mettenberger) hadn’t gotten the job, I’m sure he would’ve left anyway. Because why would somebody with a ton of talent would just sit on your bench your whole career. That’s kinda tough. Because they both would’ve (already) redshirted, so he wouldn’t have gotten to play at all, unless Murray would’ve gotten hurt, which he hasn’t. If Mett had gotten the job, I’m sure Murray would’ve done the same thing, so who knows.”
Offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said Murray and Mettenberger were competing.
“Who knows what might’ve happened,” Bobo said. “Fortunately for both those guys, they’ve had good careers.”
Mettenberger and Murray both signed with Georgia in 2009, and each redshirted while Joe Cox started his senior year. So the following spring it was an open competition. Logan Gray also made a push, but the duel between Mettenberger and Murray was what stood out.
“It was pretty special, because they were both 19 at the time and they were making throws that not a lot of 19-year-olds were making,” Georgia senior tight end Arthur Lynch said. “Bobo would be shaking his head, like, ‘Damn, who do I pick?’ ”
Murray said, “Every day, it was really back and forth in practice. It was fun to watch. I talked to guys on the team. You ask Arthur, it was fireworks every day at practice. He’d go out there and make a throw, and I’d make a throw. It was back and forth.”
“Murray was a little bit more polished in that he was in a high school system that was maybe closer to what we’re doing,” head coach Mark Richt said Tuesday. “Whereas Zach, I think maybe every year of his life he was in a different system, at least from high school to college, and even this year. I don’t know if he’s gone two years in a row with the same offensive coordinator. Zach had some catching up to do in some of those finer points. But his talent was obviously very evident. So both of those guys we felt like we could win with at Georgia.”
Mettenberger’s first off-field incident was a misdemeanor alcohol arrest, which left him suspended for the season opener. So even if Mettenberger had not been dismissed, Murray was going to start the 2010 season opener against Louisiana-Lafayette.
Murray’s career basically took off after that opener, playing well despite the team’s 1-4 start. So it’s easy to see that even with Mettenberger still around, Murray never would have let anyone else have a shot at the job.
The point became moot after an incident in Valdosta at a bar, ending his career at Georgia. Richt, who had known Mettenberger since he was a kid, on Tuesday addressed the difficulty of sitting down with him and telling him he was dismissed.
“I think he understood. It wasn’t easy for me, it wasn’t easy for him. I’m proud of how he responded to it,” Richt said. “Now he’s put himself in tremendous position for his future. That’s what you hope, and that’s what you dream for with these guys when you have an issue.”
Mettenberger spent that fall at a junior college in Kansas, then he transferred to LSU. He served as the third-string quarterback in 2011, not seeing a snap in the SEC championship win over Georgia. Last year he took over the starting job, and this year he’s off to a fast start.
Mettenberger remains close with a number of Georgia players. In fact, Lynch was on the phone with Mettenberger around lunchtime Tuesday. Mettenberger was complaining to Lynch that the previous night media members had been asking him about his mother, Tammy, who is one of Richt’s administrative assistants. Lynch laughed and told his friend that it was a storyline, and reporters were just doing their job.
“It’s nice to see when two of your closest friends can have the success they’ve wanted to obtain (since) high school,” Lynch said. “They were two top-10 quarterbacks coming out of high school, they both signed here, it was a risk they took. And now I can say with confidence and excitement that both those guys have achieved coming out of high school.”
Said Murray, “It’s great to see how far he’s come. It was really crazy watching the game the other night, seeing him out there, and seeing Nick Marshall playing. Those are two guys that are quarterbacks for SEC teams, doing well, and they were on this team only a couple years ago. It was weird seeing them in different uniforms. It’s gonna be weird seeing him on the other sideline for LSU on Saturday.”