Lee gets another chance at LSU
BATON ROUGE, La. -- The thread was titled "Hey Lee Lovers," and the first post captured the sentiments of a healthy chunk of the LSU fan base, circa November 2009. A night earlier, some LSU fans had lustily booed the Tigers' offense -- specifically, quarterback Jarrett Lee -- during a thoroughly uninspiring 24-16 win against Louisiana Tech. The next day, on popular fan site TigerDroppings.com, a fan who calls himself TigerTaterTots took Lee's supporters to task.
"This was a gift wrapped opportunity for JL to show what he could do," Mr. Tots wrote, "and he failed tremendously."
No group loves its team quite as angrily as the LSU fan base. LSU fans will suffer no barbs from outsiders, but amongst themselves, they can be merciless critics of their Tigers. Lee, who had thrown seven pick-sixes while starting for most of 2008, had drawn their wrath again while subbing for an injured Jordan Jefferson. Lee had completed seven of 22 passes for 105 yards.
After that performance and the response it drew, no one would have been surprised had Lee had left Baton Rouge following the 2009 season and surfaced at an FCS school in need of a strong right arm. That's how playing quarterback works in this era of major college football. In most cases, if a quarterback can't win the starting job, he transfers. If he starts for a while and then loses his job, he transfers. Lee admits he briefly considered leaving. "It was something that was in the back of my mind," the Brenham, Texas, native said Tuesday evening. Then he said something more important.
"I didn't come here to LSU to transfer."
When most quarterbacks would have left, Lee stayed. He has been booed and benched, but now he is LSU's best option. Saturday, Lee will lead the No. 4 Tigers against No. 3 Oregon in Arlington, Texas.
Two weeks ago, Lee didn't expect to be LSU's starter. Then, early on the morning of Aug. 19, Shady's happened. A brawl outside a strip mall sports bar left one man injured and two LSU football players accused. One of those players was Jefferson, the senior who beat out Lee at the end of 2008 and again in 2009, 2010 and -- until Shady's happened -- 2011. Now Jefferson is suspended indefinitely. He faces a charge of second degree battery. Jefferson's attorney has said he'll appeal to LSU coach Les Miles to lift the suspension, but in an interview early Tuesday afternoon, Miles said he had not spoken to the attorney. Miles also indicated that he had no intention of lifting Jefferson's suspension.
This is not about what Miles should or shouldn't do with Jefferson. Plenty of others have offered their advice, and that scenario will play itself out in time. This is about Lee. The guy who did everything he was supposed to. The guy who stuck it out when most would have packed their bags.
This is the same Lee who replaced an injured Andrew Hatch at Auburn in 2008 and led LSU to victory by throwing for 182 yards and two touchdowns. It should be noted, however, that Lee also threw an interception that Auburn's Gabe McKenzie returned for a touchdown. This would become a theme in 2008. Six more times, a Lee pass would result in six points for the opposition.
In the regular-season finale against Arkansas that year, Miles turned to Jefferson, then a true freshman. Jefferson's play provided a glimmer of hope. Still, Jefferson never truly locked down the job. When Jefferson got knocked out at Alabama in 2009, Lee got another shot against Louisiana Tech. The boos rained. Lee still didn't leave. Jefferson beat him out again the following season, but when LSU needed him, there was Lee. At Florida, he led a game-winning drive aided by a fake field goal bounce pass from holder Derek Helton to kicker Josh Jasper. Weeks later, with the Tigers up three and facing third-and-13 from their own 20-yard line with 2:49 remaining against Alabama, Miles brought in Lee for a banged-up Jefferson. Instead of running up the middle and then punting, Miles approved a pass. A cold Lee hit Reuben Randle for a 47-yard gain to ice the win.
Jefferson returned the following week and started the remainder of LSU's games, but like Lee, he drew the ire of the fans when LSU's offense finished the 2010 season ranked 107th in the nation in passing. This past spring, some hoped Zach Mettenberger, a JUCO transfer who would be playing at Georgia now if not for an incident in a bar (http://www.usatoday.com/sports/college/football/sec/2011-03-11-mettenberger-lsu-quarterback_N.htm), would beat out Jefferson and Lee. But that didn't happen. Jefferson won the job, and Lee finished second.
Now Jefferson might be gone for good, and Lee has the reins. "We know it's an unfortunate situation," Lee said. "You never want that to happen to your teammate. The best thing to do is just come in and do the best I can for the team."
When Jefferson and linebacker Josh Johns were arrested in connection with the brawl, Miles spoke of the case as a teachable moment. Maybe the lesson is this: Don't be quick to discard someone so determined to stay the course. You might need him later. "He is very loyal to this place," Miles said of Lee. "He wanted his degree to read LSU. He wanted his life to be marked by that credential."
If Lee winds up leading the Tigers to a special season, he'll leave Baton Rouge with more than a degree. He'll earn a special place in the collective heart of one of college football's most demanding fan bases. Even now, the fans have galvanized behind Lee just as the team has. They haven't forgotten Lee's struggles, but they are willing to forgive. Tuesday, an LSU fan using the handle 'dreaux' took to TigerDroppings.com to capture the sentiment of a healthy chunk of LSU's fan base, circa late August 2011. "JL with a more experienced o-line and much better backs then he had in 08 PLUS a game plan to utilize his strengths = DOMINATION!!!" the fan wrote. "I think he is ready!"
Lee knows he is ready. He had the chance to leave, but he turned it down because he didn't want to be anyone else's quarterback. He wanted to be LSU's quarterback. Now, Lee will get one more opportunity to prove he belongs in control of the offense.
"I stuck it out here," Lee said. "And I'm glad I did."