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ATHENS, Ga. -- At the end of spring practice at Georgia in 2010, Aaron Murray wasn't convinced he'd beat out fellow freshman Zach Mettenberger to become the Bulldogs' starting quarterback.
"It was back and forth," Murray said. "It was tight. It probably would have gone through the summer and [preseason] camp, and who knows what would have happened?"
It was such a tight race that Murray even inquired about transferring to another school if he didn't win the job, according to Bulldogs tight end Arthur Lynch, a close friend of both quarterbacks.
|Aaron Murray (right) thought there was a chance Zach Mettenberger could win the starting QB job at Georgia in 2010.|
"Aaron told me after that spring that he was calling a lot of other coaches because it was such a close competition," Lynch said. "He didn't know if he was going to win the job."
But Murray, who was one of the country's top-rated quarterback prospects before redshirting at Georgia in 2009, never finished his competition with Mettenberger. Mettenberger, who grew up in nearby Watkinsville, Ga., and spent much of his childhood around the UGA football offices where his mother, Tammy, works as an administrative assistant, was dismissed from the team on April 18, 2010.
Mettenberger's dismissal stemmed from a March 2010 incident at a bar in Remerton, Ga., in which he was initially charged with underage possession of alcohol, disorderly conduct, obstruction and two counts of having a fake ID. UGA coach Mark Richt originally planned to suspend Mettenberger for a couple of games, but kicked him off the team after he was also charged with two counts of misdemeanor sexual battery for grabbing the buttocks and breasts of a 20-year-old woman. The alcohol-related charges were dismissed, and Mettenberger pleaded guilty to misdemeanor sexual battery and was sentenced to 12 months' probation, community service and a $2,000 fine.
"It was very difficult," Richt said. "It's difficult anytime a situation gets to a point where I might have to dismiss a guy from the team. Knowing Zach for as long as we've known him and his mom and dad, they're family to us. They're still family to the Georgia program. It was very difficult, but I think he understood it wasn't easy for me and wasn't easy for him."
After spending the 2010 season at Butler (Kan.) Community College, Mettenberger transferred to LSU and won the starting quarterback job last season. He returns to Sanford Stadium for the first time Saturday when No. 6 LSU plays No. 9 Georgia in a pivotal SEC contest.
"It's going to be great," Mettenberger told ESPN.com in July. "As a kid growing up as a Georgia fan and my mom working there, I always dreamed of playing between the hedges. Now, I actually get that opportunity, just wearing purple and gold. The dream has changed a little bit, but I still get to live it. It's going to be great going back home and playing in a place that's familiar to me."
They're gonna boo the crap out of me. I might get a freaking brick thrown at my head, who knows?" -- LSU QB Zach Mettenberger on how fans will greet him Saturday
Richt said he's happy for his former quarterback.
"I'm proud of how he responded to it," Richt said. "He went to junior college and did extremely well. He got an opportunity to come back to a place like LSU, which is a tribute to him, and now he's put himself in a tremendous position for his future. That's what you hope for and dream for these guys when they have an issue."
On Saturday, Murray and Mettenberger will square off one more time, with each quarterback hoping to keep his team in the race for an SEC title and potentially a BCS national championship. Mettenberger and Murray rank first and third, respectively, in the SEC in QBR, and the former college roommates have already combined to throw for more than 2,000 yards with 17 touchdowns and three interceptions.
"It's almost like fate brought them to this point," Lynch said.
Lynch and a few other UGA players have remained in contact with Mettenberger. Lynch, from Dartmouth, Mass., met Mettenberger while the Bulldogs were recruiting the tight end in high school. They became very close friends. Lynch spent a couple of Thanksgiving holidays at Mettenberger's home.
"My mom was upset when he had to leave," Lynch said.
Mettenberger and two of his LSU teammates stayed at Lynch's house while visiting Athens this summer. Lynch exchanged texts with Mettenberger before LSU's 35-21 victory over Auburn on Saturday, while also passing along well wishes from Murray.
"Trust me, there was no hostility when he left," Lynch said. "I think the coaches didn't even want him to leave. He's a good kid. He grew up around here."
Richt gave Mettenberger's mother the past two weeks off as UGA prepares to play LSU. While Tigers coach Les Miles joked that he was "really kind of hoping that we'd get the call sheet, several of the other key pieces of information," Richt didn't want to put his mother in an uncomfortable situation.
|Mettenberger knows there will be a lot of eyes on him at Sanford Stadium.|
Mettenberger believes Saturday's setting is already going to be uncomfortable enough for him and his family.
"They're gonna cheer for me," Mettenberger said. "They're gonna yell, 'Yeah! Go Zach!' No, they're gonna boo the crap out of me. I might get a freaking brick thrown at my head, who knows? It's going to be like going and playing anywhere else on the road. Everyone's going to be screaming at you and I'm anticipating the worst, for sure. But it's still going to be fun to be back home."
UGA fans will see a much different quarterback. Under first-year offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, Mettenberger is completing 64.8 percent of his passes for 1,026 yards and10 touchdowns, two fewer than he had in 13 games last season and the most by any LSU quarterback through four games. After struggling to throw the ball down the field last season, the Tigers had at least 400 yards of offense in each of their first four games for the first time in school history.
"He makes a very, very accurate throw," Miles said. "He can throw a rope when he needs to, put air underneath it when he wants to. He's so much more athletic. He's thinner and stronger than he's been. When we first got him, we felt like maybe he was a little too heavy. But he's trimmed down and gotten stronger. I think he's one of those guys that really can compare against any and has a tremendous future at quarterback."
Three years ago, Mettenberger wasn't sure what his future held.
"I'm very happy for Zach and his success," Richt said. "I've always liked him since he was a little boy and always wanted him to have success. I don't want him to have great success on Saturday, obviously, but I'm very happy for him and his family. They're great people."
It will feel like old times on Saturday when Mettenberger battles Murray once again.