- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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To a man, every college football coach that Stephen Lee consulted about his son's future offered him the same advice.
"They all told me he had the ability to be the starting quarterback somewhere," said Lee, who is quarterbacks coach at West Texas A&M. "They told me, 'He needs to go play.' If he wasn't going to get the opportunity at LSU, he needed to go somewhere else."
Stephen Lee said that's the advice he received from Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher, Nebraska coach Bo Pelini and Maryland offensive coordinator Gary Crowton, who had either recruited or coached Jarrett Lee while working at LSU.
No one would have blamed Jarrett Lee for leaving LSU. He started eight games as a redshirt freshman in 2008, after projected starting quarterback Ryan Perrilloux was kicked off the team for violating numerous team rules. But Lee wasn't ready for the job and threw for 13 touchdowns and 16 interceptions, six of which were returned for touchdowns.
A year after winning a BCS national championship, LSU limped to an 8-5 record in 2008. Lee received much of the blame for the Tigers' poor performance. He was called everything from Benedict Arnold to Hanoi Jane by LSU fans for his costly mistakes.
"I was a young player, but that's college football," Lee said. "That's life and sometimes those things happen. I grew up a lot, and I wouldn't trade '08 for anything."
Three years later, Lee is back under center for the No. 2 Tigers, leading them to a 3-0 record going into Saturday night's game at No. 16 West Virginia. After playing as a backup behind Jordan Jefferson the last two seasons, Lee won the starting job again this year by default.
Jefferson, a senior from St. Rose, La., was suspended indefinitely from the team in late August, after he was arrested on felony charges of second-degree battery for his role in a fight outside a Baton Rouge night club on Aug. 19. A grand jury in Baton Rouge is considering Jefferson's criminal case this week.
Lee, a senior from Brenham, Texas, has played remarkably well in Jefferson's absence. In three games, Lee has completed 67.8 percent of his passes for 444 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. He has already guided the Tigers to victories over two ranked opponents, 40-27 over then-No. 3 Oregon on Sept. 3 and 19-6 over then-No. 25 Mississippi State on Sept. 15.
LSU coach Les Miles said he isn't surprised by Lee's performance.
"I've really enjoyed how Jarrett's continued to compete," Miles said. "I think his teammates have responded extremely well. He was voted team captain in a very strong vote going into the first game. They're counting on him, and frankly he's given them every reason to count on him by the way he's contributed and the way he's continued to compete."
Few LSU fans could have blamed Lee for leaving after his disastrous debut season. Lee said the low point came during LSU's 27-21 overtime loss to then-No. 1 Alabama on Nov. 8, 2008. The Tigers miraculously blocked Alabama's 29-yard field goal with three seconds left to force overtime, then Lee threw his fourth interception of the game on LSU's next possession.
The Crimson Tide won the game on quarterback John Parker Wilson's one-yard sneak in overtime, giving former LSU coach Nick Saban a victory in his first trip back to Baton Rouge.
"As a young player, you never want to put your team in those situations," Lee said. "We had a chance to win the game. Those four interceptions hurt. We had a chance to win the game, but I felt like I threw it away."
That's life and sometimes those things happen. I grew up a lot, and I wouldn't trade '08 for anything.
”-- Jarrett Lee on the 2008 season
Lee guided the Tigers to a remarkable comeback victory the next week, when LSU overcame a 31-3 deficit against Troy by scoring 37 straight points in the final 16½ minutes of a 40-31 win. Lee sprained his ankle against Ole Miss the next week and didn't play again that season.
Even though Lee played well at times during his first season at LSU -- he also came off the bench and threw an 18-yard touchdown to Brandon LaFell with 1:03 left in a 26-21 win at No. 10 Auburn in the fourth game of 2008 -- his mistakes were remembered most.
"It was difficult," Stephen Lee said. "The things that were brought to attention the most were the negatives. As a parent, you hate to see negative things happen to your own. It was a very difficult year. But big-time, Division I football is a tough deal. It's really a 'What have you done for me lately?' business. There were a lot of things that happened that we didn't sign up for."
Jefferson took over as LSU's starting quarterback in 2009 and held the position for most of the last two seasons. Lee still played a significant role at times, like throwing a three-yard touchdown pass to Terrence Toliver -- after a successful fake field goal kept a late drive alive -- with six seconds left in a 33-29 victory at No. 14 Florida last season.
But Stephen Lee wondered if his son didn't need a new home to get another chance at becoming a starting quarterback.
"To be honest, I think staying at LSU was just something that was in his heart," Stephen Lee said. "I always respected what he wanted to do. I knew he wanted to play somewhere. I just kept telling him that if he really wanted to play, he needed to look at all his options. It was just really in his heart to stick with LSU."
Jarrett Lee said he considered leaving LSU but that he never contacted another school about transferring.
"It was definitely something that crossed the back of my mind," Lee said. "But I didn't come to LSU to transfer. I wanted to stick it out. It's a special place and I really wanted to graduate from LSU."
Lee had to overcome more than his own demons over the last four seasons. The Tigers signed a quartet of would-be replacements since he signed with LSU in 2007.
Jefferson came on board after Lee's redshirt freshman season, and the Tigers signed Russell Shepard, the country's third-rated player 2009. After playing quarterback, running back and receiver during his first college season in 2009, Shepard moved to receiver full-time last season. Shepard is eligible to return from a three-game suspension for violating NCAA rules in Saturday night's game at West Virginia.
In 2010, top quarterback prospect Zach Lee signed with LSU and briefly joined the team before opting to sign a $5.5 million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers, who drafted him in the first round of the 2010 amateur baseball draft. The Tigers signed JUCO transfer Zach Mettenberger, a former Georgia quarterback, in February to compete with Jefferson and Lee in training camp.
When Jefferson was suspended in August, Miles surprised a lot of LSU fans when he named Lee the starter over Mettenberger.
"That's just part of college football," Lee said. "They've got to recruit and bring guys in. But I was raised to work your hardest every day and to know you left it all on the field when you walk off the practice field. I just tried to stay positive."
Now, as Lee prepares to lead LSU against another nationally ranked opponent and with a rugged SEC slate looming on the schedule, Miles knows his quarterback probably wouldn't be where he is today without laboring through the trials of 2008.
"I think when you get to the back end of your career, you take all those experiences that you've had, both positive and negative," Miles said. "I think as a senior, you draw back on all those moments. It allows you to have a comfort with all those situations. He's already been there. He's played a lot of football. He's lined up against great teams. You've played in tight quarters. I think that's allowed him to be a little stronger man and a stronger personality. He's answered some questions about himself."
And Lee has answered everyone else's questions about him, too.
"He's one I've always enjoyed," Miles said. "He's a very resilient and tough kid. He underwent a baptism by fire. I don't know if there was a start more rough than his, but he never wavered once."
Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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