NEW ORLEANS – If Jarrett Lee was uncomfortable, as always, he masked it well Friday.
With the swarm of media covering the BCS Championship Game scattered around the Superdome floor, Lee was bound to be a popular target at some point as he sat at a table.
Media members came and went and – again, as always – Lee had the right answers ready to fire off when the questions came.
What’s your role now?
“I’m the backup now, but you never know when your number may be called in any situation,” Lee said. “You have to be ready to come in and make the plays and stay focused.”
How’s your confidence since the last Alabama game?
“That confidence is still there,” he rattled off. “I have to be confident in myself and make sure my team is confident in me.”
Yep, Lee knew what he’d be asked and he knew how he’d answer.
Think, though, how different those questions and answers might’ve been had the LSU quarterback situation not taken such a drastic turn on Nov. 5 in the first battle against Alabama.
That was when Lee went from one of the centerpieces on an unbeaten No. 1-ranked team who had carved a spot as a hero that his team rallied around while Jordan Jefferson served a suspension to a footnote – and anybody who’s ever read anything with footnotes knows you barely pay attention to them.
For whatever reason that nobody outside the LSU football family may ever fully know or understand, the transition from Lee to Jefferson was not smooth. It played out more like a 15-year-old learning how to drive with a stick shift.
It made sense for Jefferson to relieve Lee in the Alabama game after two ugly interceptions because his mobility helped keep the Crimson Tide defense off-balance.
No argument here either that Jefferson shouldn’t have started the next week against Western Kentucky to get him as many reps as possible for the stretch run when it appeared LSU was headed for a full-blown two-quarterback system.
Except suddenly that wasn’t the case. Instead of the two seniors sharing time as they had for four games leading up to the dramatic Alabama turning point, the job was Jefferson’s all alone again and the last four games of Lee’s season turned into a back-to-the-future wave of frustration.
After eight games of steady leadership when Lee threw for 1,250 yards and 13 touchdowns with only two picks, his meaningful contributions abruptly ended that night in Tuscaloosa.
Just don’t think it was eating him alive. Quite the opposite it seems.
Back to being a backup, Lee didn’t change his approach a whole lot.
“It would’ve been easy to complain, but he didn’t and that speaks to his character,” said offensive lineman T-Bob Hebert, who has been Lee’s teammate for five years. “Jarrett doesn’t let it get him down or get nonchalant in practice. He comes to work each and every day focused and ready to go.”
|Jarrett Lee had plenty of moments in the sun early in the season.|
Now the final turn lies ahead for Lee. One way or another, the strong-armed Texan rides off into the sunset after Monday’s BCS Championship Game.
What his role will be against the Crimson Tide is anybody’s guess. Most likely, Lee will be a spectator as Jefferson tries to guide LSU to a victory that would cap a historic season with a third national championship in nine years.
That would be a nice bookend for Lee, who was a true freshman in 2007 when the Tigers won their last crown. He didn’t have a part that night because he was redshirting behind veterans Matt Flynn and Ryan Perrilloux.
Now the situation has traveled an imperfect circle to arrive at the end and Lee is again standing and watching.
But Lee and his coaches know he also has to be prepared.
“He understands he’s one play away from playing Monday night and he’d better be ready and he will be,” quarterbacks coach Steve Kragthorpe said.
“He’s been through the ups and downs and peaks and valleys in his career. He had a lot of peaks this season and then the valley. But who knows what happens Monday night?”
What happens for sure Monday is that Lee’s roller-coaster college career reaches the finish line. Whether he takes a snap or throws a pass, Lee’s numbers will be easy to define in black-and-white: 3,949 passing yards and 32 touchdowns, which ranks seventh on LSU’s all-time list, right behind Jefferson and Jamie Howard, who both have 34.
Those numbers should stand alone to put Lee in a special place in LSU lore, as should the result they helped create this season.
Simply put, the Tigers aren’t where they are right now without Lee stepping into an emergency situation after Jefferson’s arrest and suspension in late August. He shouldered a difficult burden and guided the Tigers without the offense missing a beat and did something that should matter more to him than any numbers: He earned the respect of his teammates and coaches.