The SEC lost many of its premier defensive backs to the NFL this offseason. Notable names such as LSU’s Morris Claiborne, Alabama’s Mark Barron and Dre Kirkpatrick, South Carolina’s Stephon Gilmore, Vanderbilt’s Casey Hayward and Georgia’s Brandon Boykin will all be playing on Sundays in 2012.
Remember, though, this is the most talent-stocked conference in college football that we’re talking about. No matter how many great players the league may send off to the pros every year, there are always new young potential stars who are waiting to make a name for themselves.
This season, the SEC should once again feature some of the best defensive backs in college football. However, there’s one player in particular that will receive the most amount of praise and publicity this summer, and that’s LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu.
No other defensive player in college football garnered the type of attention and recognition that Mathieu did in 2011, as he became one of the biggest breakout performers of year. The tiny yet tenacious 5’9’’, 175-pound junior quickly rose to national prominence after taking over the starting cornerback role from his former mentor Patrick Peterson.
Throughout the course of the 2011 season, Mathieu proved to be a true difference maker for the supremely stacked LSU defense. He displayed an outstanding nose for the football, as he racked up 76 tackles, two interceptions, nine pass break-ups, six forced fumbles, five fumble recoveries and 1.5 sacks.
When Mathieu was labeled with the nickname the “Honey Badger” for his persistent playing style, the moniker instantly went viral. His popularity quickly skyrocketed, and by the midpoint of the season, he became one of the most talked about players in all of college football.
By the end of the season, many fans and media members had gotten swept up in the Honey Badger hype.
For his efforts, Mathieu was rewarded with basically every possible honor you could think of, including the Bednarik Award, first-team All-American honors and a trip to New York City as a Heisman finalist.
Now, Mathieu will enter the 2012 season as one of the most decorated defenders in all of college football.
After a poor no-show performance against Alabama in the BCS championship game, however, it’s now fair to wonder if Mathieu is really the elite player that many have made him out to be.
Mathieu may be fun to watch, and he’s certainly shown that he has a knack for making momentum-changing plays. Still, as far as pure talent and skills are concerned, you could make the argument that not only is the Honey Badger not the best defensive player in college football—he’s not even the best defensive player on his own team.
Defensive Ends Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery and safety Eric Reid all played just as big of a role in LSU’s defensive success in 2011, and if they decide to declare for the 2013 NFL draft as expected, all three will most likely hear their names called before Mathieu will.
It may be easy to get caught up in the Honey Badger hype like so many others have, but if you’re truly looking for the best defensive back in the SEC, you don’t have to go to Baton Rouge to find him. Instead, you better head down to Starkville, because that's where Mississippi State cornerback Johnthan Banks is prepping for a showcase senior season in 2012.
Since the Bulldogs didn’t receive anywhere near the same kind of national attention as LSU did during its undefeated run through the regular season last year, Banks never had the chance to flaunt his talents for the entire college football world to see like Mathieu did.
Even though he didn’t have the spotlight shining on him, and even though he wasn’t competing on the national stage week after week like Mathieu was—the 6’2’’, 185-pound senior still had an outstanding 2011 campaign, as he racked up 71 tackles, three sacks, five interceptions and nine pass break-ups.
Banks is the type of big, athletic and intelligent corner who has the ball-skills and coverage ability that is sure to make NFL scouts salivate, which is why he flirted with entering his name in the 2012 draft just like his former teammate DT Fletcher Cox did.
Cox was taken with 12th overall selection this year, and Banks may just end up as a top-15 pick as well in 2013 if he can have the type of final performance that he’s capable of.
Mathieu, on the other hand, will probably have a tough time living up to sky-high expectations, because the fact is, he just doesn’t possess the skills to be an elite cornerback. It would hardly be surprising if Mathieu’s own teammate, safety Eric Reid, who like Banks could also develop into a top-15 NFL draft pick in 2013, ends up overshadowing and outperforming him this season.
Last year, the Honey Badger clearly benefited from the college football snowball effect, which is something we’ve seen happen to plenty of players in recent years. After putting together a couple of great performances in a row early in the season, everyone wanted to jump on Mathieu’s bandwagon and praise him. However, soon enough, the hype got out of hand.
It’s hardly the first time it’s happened. Just ask Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson.
You certainly can’t take anything away from what Tyrann Mathieu accomplished last season, but the book has closed on 2011, and the focus has now shifted to the upcoming 2012 season.
In today’s sports world, it’s all about what you have done for me lately.
While the LSU corner may begin the year as the SEC’s most talked-about cover man, it won’t take long for Banks to ultimately rise up and unseat him.
Mathieu and Banks are both special talents, but there’s no argument to be had about who the better overall player is.
Johnthan Banks will without a doubt be the SEC’s best defensive back in 2012.