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Back home, 'Everyone loves Zach'

ATHENS, Ga. – About a half-hour before his own interviews Tuesday at Georgia, tight end Arthur Lynch happened to be on the phone discussing media gripes elsewhere with the starting quarterback for this week’s opponent.

LSU starting QB Zach Mettenberger was a UGA signee back in 2009.

And it wasn’t awkward to either of them.

“That’s my boy, man,” Lynch said. “I guess they kept asking questions about his mom. I was like, ‘Well, it’s a storyline, man. That’s what they’re supposed to do.’”

True. Saturday brings a game dripping with storylines, and this tops the list.

He’s been out of sight. But since his 2010 dismissal, current LSU quarterback and Athens-area native Zach Mettenberger has never been out of mind for many of the members of the Georgia football program of which he was once a part.

And he won’t be Saturday either.

Mettenberger is set to start a game at Sanford Stadium, which is something he has worked to do since he was a youngster. It’s a really big game too. LSU comes in undefeated, ranked as the nation’s No. 6 team. Georgia is No. 9.

But a twist of fortune more than three years ago now has Athens-area native Mettenberger returning home as the villain, trying to spoil remaining BCS title hopes for the school where he grew up wanting to play.

“It is hard not to want that when your mom has worked there for 14 years and you have been around the coaching staff and players for so long,” Mettenberger said this week.

Aaron Murray: “I doubt both of us would have stayed."

So Mettenberger, whose mother Tammy is a long-time administrative assistant for Georgia’s football team, remains remarkably close with his former team. That includes people like Lynch and quarterback Aaron Murray, each of whom were members of the same Bulldogs’ 2009 signing class.

There are others. Mettenberger, for instance, also chats frequently with UGA cornerback Blake Sailors, who played alongside him at Oconee County High School

“Everyone loves Zach. It’s just how he is,” said Lynch, a Massachusetts native. “He’s a nice kid. He connects with everyone. He’s from Watkinsville, Ga., and he connects with me. That makes no sense.”

“He comes in town all the time,” UGA quarterback Aaron Murray said. “He was in Athens a couple of times over the summer, and I got to see him. Actually, last Friday I roomed with Arthur, and he was texting Zach about their game versus Auburn. I was sort of speaking through Arthur, ‘Hey, tell Zach good luck. Ask him how Auburn looks on film,’ and stuff like that."

It has been a while now. But at first, Murray’s record-breaking career at UGA was linked closely to Mettenberger.

The two enrolled together in 2009 and were competing for the quarterback job in the spring of 2010. Murray was ahead at the time, but Mettenberger wasn’t far behind.

“We thought both of them were very, very talented,” UGA coach Mark Richt said. “Even when they both committed to come to Georgia and signed at Georgia, we knew we were very blessed to have two guys that we thought were going to be really good. As they began to compete, I thought it was very close. I think Murray was a little more polished in that he was in a high school system that was maybe closer to what we were doing.”

By that spring of 2010, though, things had already changed drastically for Mettenberger, with the wheels in motion for his dismissal from Georgia’s team.

Richt on dismissing Mettenberger: "It was very difficult"

Richt announced in April that Mettenberger had been kicked off Georgia’s team in the wake of a well-publicized arrest weeks earlier that led to him pleading guilty for two counts of misdemeanor sexual battery near Valdosta, Ga.

Just like that, the local high school star was no longer a member of Georgia’s football program and bound for junior college and later a scholarship at LSU.

“It was very difficult,” Richt said. “It’s difficult any time a situation gets to the point where I might have to dismiss a guy from the team. To do it to Zach, knowing Zach for as long as we’ve known him, knowing his mom and dad, they’re family to us. And they’re still family to the Georgia program, so it was very difficult. I think he understood. It wasn’t easy for me, and it wasn’t easy for him.

“I’m proud of how he responded to it. He went to junior college. He did extremely well, and he got an opportunity to come back and go to a place like LSU, which is a tribute to him and now he’s put himself in tremendous position for his future.”

After Mettenberger’s exit, Murray did start the next season for Georgia and every season after it through this one. Mettenberger wound up seizing the starting quarterback role at LSU last season and is now blossoming in year two.

Looking back, it’s entirely possible Mettenberger may not have stayed at UGA anyway if Murray had been the guy, or vice versa.

“I doubt both of us would have stayed,” Murray said. “I’m sure one of us probably would have left. You could be talking to him right now and I’m at LSU or another school.”

With the situation as it is, Mettenberger’s return to Athens has increased the hype for an already massive game set for 3:30 p.m. Saturday.

But for Mettenberger, there is the obvious attention accompanying that, even with Richt saying he gave Tammy the week off to avoid an “awkward” atmosphere at work.

“It is just another game,” Mettenberger told reporters in Baton Rouge. “It is unfair, the situation that my teammates and family are being put in and all of the crazy questions that people have to answer. I should be the one that has to answer the questions. I don’t want any outside media or spotlight on myself or my relationship with Georgia to take away from this game and the experience for all the other guys.”

The extra buildup could mean pressure when Mettenberger returns home, but Lynch is expecting the best from a close quarterbacking friend.

Well, he expects that from two friends, really.

“If I know Zach, he loves big games. He loves to play under pressure,” Lynch said. “That’s just kind of how he is, whether it was anything, pick-up basketball, video games. He just likes competition and likes to be a part of it and likes to play in big games -- as does Aaron. I think you’ll see the best of both worlds for those two guys on Saturday.

“I don’t think either are going to hold anything back.”

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