LSU’s Lee gets chance for atonement

Jarrett Lee still remembers being booed by LSU’s rabid fans.

Just like the redshirt senior quarterback recalls the disgusted stares they used to give him when he went out to eat. He also has not forgotten the hateful Facebook messages they sent him.

That was three years ago, when LSU fans vilified Lee during a redshirt freshman season in which he started eight games and threw 16 interceptions, seven of which were returned for touchdowns.

Lee still has flashbacks to that dreadful 2008 season, despite his return as the Tigers’ starting quarterback this season. He inherited the job in August when Jordan Jefferson, the incumbent starter, was suspended for his involvement in a brawl outside a bar.

Lee’s 2008 flashbacks were the worst when he backed up Jefferson. Lee would contemplate the two interceptions he threw in a blowout loss to eventual national champion Florida or the two returned for touchdowns in a 14-point loss to Georgia.

Yet the one interception that haunted Lee the most was the last of the four he threw against Alabama in a 27-21 overtime loss. It came on the first possession of the extra period, when he forced the ball into the end zone on third down instead of throwing it away to set up a field-goal attempt.

“That one,” Lee says, “really bothers me.”

And while Lee has played surprisingly well this season in throwing for 1,250 yards with 13 touchdowns and just one interception, he is sure to remember that painful interception Saturday when top-ranked LSU (8-0, 5-0 SEC) takes the field at No. 2 Alabama (8-0, 5-0) in a game already being touted as one of college football’s most significant.

He never will forget it but is determined not to let history repeat itself.

“This time,” Lee says, “I want to show everybody that I can do it.”

Lee always had before his arrival at LSU in 2007. The son of a football coach and former college quarterback, he was known for being unflappable under pressure and possessing a rocket arm while starring at Brenham (Texas) High School, located about an hour northwest of Houston.

Lee transferred to Brenham High for his junior year after his father, Stephen Lee, got a job at the school as an assistant coach. During their two seasons together at Brenham High, the younger Lee threw for 6,074 yards and 71 touchdowns with 17 interceptions.

He ended up picking LSU over Nebraska and nearly three dozen other schools.

“He was one of the elite guys,” says former Scout.com national recruiting analyst Jamie Newberg, who now works for ESPN.

During Lee’s first season at LSU, he redshirted and the Tigers won the 2007 national championship. Four months later, Ryan Perrilloux, who was expected to be the starting quarterback in 2008, was kicked off the team.

Lee was the backup to starting quarterback Andrew Hatch for the first three games of the 2008 season. Lee played in each of those games before making his first career start after Hatch suffered a concussion, a move LSU coach Les Miles now refers to as “a baptism by fire.”

“He was too young,” Miles says. “It was too early.”

Lee’s lone loss in his first three starts was to Florida, but he threw a combined four interceptions in those games. He threw three in his next start against Georgia, including the two returned for touchdowns that were the game’s difference.

By then, the boos and stares from LSU fans had started. As had the Facebook messages:

“You’re terrible. Transfer.”

“Quit throwing pick-sixes.”

“Go away.”

In Lee’s next start, against hapless Tulane, he threw another interception that was returned for a touchdown in the fourth quarter. It was the Green Wave’s only touchdown.

When Jefferson replaced Lee late in LSU’s sluggish victory over its in-state opponent, Tigers fans cheered loudly.

“It was very gut-wrenching,” Lee says.

But Lee’s worst experience came the next week in the Alabama loss, in which he threw four interceptions. He still vividly recalls everything about that final, fateful interception.

“It really hurts,” Lee says. “It was a rollout, sprint out to the right. I just kind of overthrew him, and the safety was there. I remember it all. I should have just thrown it away and been smart.”

Lee still started the next week against Troy but was briefly benched during the comeback win. He also started against Mississippi the following week, but he was knocked out of the game in the first half with an ankle injury and missed LSU’s final two games.

Some LSU fans were actually relieved when Lee was injured because they knew he couldn’t throw interceptions from the sideline.

“There were some weeks where it was miserable,” Lee says of the 2008 season.

The spring after Lee’s disastrous redshirt freshman season, he met with Miles about the possibility of transferring after being replaced as the starter by Jefferson. During the meeting, Miles comforted Lee about the mistakes he had made.

“Those kind of situations happen,” Lee recalls Miles telling him. “You were a young player. Sometimes that’s going to happen in your career, but you’ve got to bounce back from it. We’ve enjoyed you here. Your opportunity may come again, and you’ve got to make the most of it.”

But Lee left the meeting not feeling much better about his future at LSU.

“He didn’t really go through this,” Lee recalls thinking. “He doesn’t really know how I feel.”

Lee, however, had always trusted Miles. His belief in Miles was one of the main reasons he chose LSU.

“Deep down I just felt like I should stay,” Lee says.

Lee never approached other schools about transferring. He made one start in place of an injured Jefferson in 2009 against Louisiana Tech, a game LSU won.

Last season, Lee didn’t start a game but made an impact in victories against Tennessee and Alabama. He even threw the touchdown pass that won the game at Florida in the final seconds.

“He played huge roles,” Miles says.

All the while, Lee never talked with his teammates about getting another chance to start. He just remained upbeat, even in mop-up duty.

During a blowout victory last season against McNeese State, the slow-afoot Lee kept the ball on a third down and ran eight yards for a first down. After the play, tackle Alex Hurst recalls Lee jogging back to the huddle and telling his teammates, “Guys, how did you like that Tebow run?”

After last season, Lee got some relief from his nightmare 2008 campaign. Gary Crowton, LSU’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at the time, left to take the same positions at Maryland.

Lee had never planned to play for Crowton because he originally committed to LSU when Jimbo Fisher was the offensive coordinator. The two were close, but Lee kept his commitment to the Tigers when Fisher left a month before signing day in 2007 to become Florida State’s head-coach-in-waiting.

When Steve Kragthorpe was hired in January to replace Crowton as LSU’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, he was already familiar with Lee. Kragthorpe is good friends with Glen West, Lee’s coach at Brenham High.

The first time Kragthorpe met with LSU’s quarterbacks, he made it clear the past was in the past.

“Everybody’s got a clean slate,” Kragthorpe recalls saying. “We’re starting fresh.”

Kragthorpe never even watched video of Lee’s woeful 2008 season. Instead, he focused on simplifying LSU’s offense.

He also preached the importance of fundamentals and making calculated, aggressive throws down the field. And he refused to let Lee be passive.

“I didn’t want him to be a guy that says, ‘I can’t throw an interception,’ ” Kragthorpe says. “He’s going to throw some interceptions. I played that position. Every guy I’ve coached has thrown interceptions. It’s going to happen, but you can’t let that take away your aggressiveness.”

When Kragthorpe finally saw Lee throw on the practice field, he was impressed by his ability.

“He can throw the football now,” Kragthorpe says. “He spins it nice. There’s no doubt about that.”

Just as Miles had no doubt Lee would play as well as he has this season when called upon to replace Jefferson. And, even after reinstating Jefferson from his suspension, Miles stayed with Lee as the starter.

“I was very confident,” Miles says. “There was never a time we didn’t think he had the talent to throw the football and mentally put us in the best position to win. It just needed to fall in place.”

And, Miles says, it doesn’t hurt that LSU’s offense is more talented at each position than when Lee had previously started.

“That’s helped him tremendously,” Miles says.

Miles believes Lee has also benefited from the addition of Kragthorpe, who relinquished his offensive coordinator duties in July when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

“A new approach can restart you,” Miles says. “I think it really has for Jarrett.”

Since Lee became LSU’s starting quarterback, his teammates have noticed he has become more vocal. At first, center P.J. Lonergan says, Lee encouraged his teammates only in the locker room before practice.

As Lee played well in games this season, he began encouraging them on the practice field. Now, Lee doesn’t hesitate to tell a wide receiver to give more effort in practice.

“Progressively, he started taking over the offense and putting it on his back,” Lonergan says.

Lee often mentions being “a young quarterback” when he talks about his first experience as LSU’s starter. Before Lee even got the job back, Lonergan says, he brought it up this year when the two discussed Alabama’s starting redshirt freshman quarterback, A.J. McCarron.

“I remember being a young quarterback in this league,” Lonergan says Lee told him. “It’s tough. It’s hard for you to do, but I’ve progressively come along.”

Despite being tormented by his past struggles, Lee is a good sport about them with his teammates.

They jokingly call him Shane Falco, the name of the quarterback Keanu Reeves portrayed in the 2000 movie “The Replacements.” In the movie, Falco is said to have played poorly for Ohio State during his team’s 45-point loss to Florida State in the 1996 Sugar Bowl.

“He takes it good,” Hurst says of Lee.

Although Lee’s career at LSU has been a roller coaster, he is glad he decided to stay. He says he loves the university and Miles.

“It’s helped me become a better player and person,” Lee says.

Lee says he doesn’t feel any extra pressure about facing Alabama on Saturday. He insists he is a more mature player than the last time he started against the Crimson Tide.

“Jarrett has battled through a lot,” Hurst says. “He’s doing great this year. He deserves this opportunity.”

Because with a win Saturday, perhaps some of the LSU fans who booed Lee, gave him evil stares and sent the hateful Facebook messages would experience the regret he has lived with for three years. And, just maybe, they would have flashbacks of their own.