LSU's Defense Has Enough Talent to Survive Without Cornerback Tyrann Mathieu
Marvin Gentry-US PRESSWIRE
For the second offseason in a row, the SEC has lost one of its premier cornerbacks due to a violation of team rules. Last year, it was Florida’s Janoris Jenkins who was booted. This time, it’s LSU’s Tyrann Mathieu.
Today, Tigers head coach Les Miles made the surprising announcement that the All-American cornerback will not be with the team this fall. However, he denied to go into great detail about why last year’s fifth-place Heisman finisher will no longer be a member of the defending conference champions.
Mathieu became one of the biggest breakout stars of the 2011 season, soaking up most of the spotlight and garnering most of the publicity as the most talked-about LSU player during the team’s undefeated run through the regular season.
After earning the catchy nickname the Honey Badger for his tenacious style of play, Mathieu saw his popularity skyrocket, and he backed up his hype with his impact playmaking ability. The 5’9’’, 175-pound junior may have been small, but he certainly was fearless, which he he proved by totaling 76 tackles, six forced fumbles, five fumble recoveries, nine pass breakups and 1.5 sacks last year.
There was no denying Mathieu’s talents and his penchant for coming up with key game-changing plays, but it was his personality that some questioned.
Most notably, there was the one-game suspension for the Auburn game for allegedly using synthetic marijuana, which left many wondering about his overall character and off-field decision-making ability. Overall, though, something about Mathieu just seemed a bit off, especially if you’ve ever taken a few minutes out of your day to read through some of the tweets his mind comes up with.
Mathieu seems to love three things more than anything in this world: god, his girlfriend and himself—in what order has yet to be determined.
He’s already been in the news twice this offseason for calling out Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron in a “Twitter battle.” And of course there was his ego-revealing Twitter missive about how he was being disrespected by sports writers and how he was truly the best defensive player in the nation.
Mathieu showed that he loved to pound his own chest and hype himself up. The problem was that regardless of the overdone media coverage and publicity he received in 2011, the Honey Badger not only wasn’t the best overall defensive player in college football, he wasn’t even the best defensive player on his own team.
Mathieu may have been the Tigers’ highlight-reel MVP last year, but there were four fellow defenders—defensive ends Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery, cornerback Morris Claiborne and safety Eric Reid—who were more valuable and important to the unit’s overall success.
Claiborne was the sixth overall pick of this year’s NFL draft while Mingo, Montgomery and Reid are all set to be top-20 picks in the 2013 NFL draft. Mathieu, on the other hand, has some questions surrounding his NFL draft status.
I’ve personally questioned Mathieu’s pro potential on a few occasions this offseason, but overall, I came to the conclusion that he could be a first-round pick if he could match his 2011 success this year. Now, after being dismissed from LSU, there’s no telling what type of depths Mathieu’s pro stock has dropped to.
The Cortland Finnegan-Brent Grimes mashup is a small corner who doesn’t possess lock-down ability, which means he’ll likely be destined for a nickel cornerback role in the NFL.
He’s not the same caliber of prospect that Janoris Jenkins was when he transferred to North Alabama last season. Jenkins went from a projected top-15 pick to a second-round selection because of his troubles, but nevertheless, he still did a respectable job of rehabbing his image to a degree as a senior.
Mathieu’s got some soul searching and some attitude adjusting to do before NFL teams will spend a high draft pick on him and give him millions of dollars. Ultimately, it will be very interesting to see where he ends up and how well he can salvage his depreciating pro stock.
As for the LSU defense, the Tigers should still have the most talented and dominant defense in college football in 2012. Potential All-Americans and future high NFL draft picks Mingo, Montgomery and Reid are all defensive stars and there are a slew of other players who are in store for breakout campaigns this year.
Defensive tackles Anthony Johnson, Bennie Logan and Josh Downs are all monsters. Defensive ends Lavar Edwards and Jermauria Rasco may both be backups, but they’d be impact starters for 95 percent of the other teams in the country.
Linebacker Kevin Minter is a stifling run-stuffer and a reliable leader in the middle of the field. And cornerback Tharold Simon and safety Craig Loston have both basically just been waiting for their moment to shine.
Simon and Loston will both have big shoes to fill, replacing NFL draft picks Claiborne and Brandon Taylor, but the defensive back who will face the most scrutiny in 2012 is Jalen Collins, who will be expected to assume Mathieu’s role as the starting cornerback this season.
Collins is a 6’2’’, 195-pound redshirt freshman, who arrived in Baton Rouge last year as a highly touted 4-star high school recruit out of Mississippi’s Olive Branch High School.
If Collins learns quickly and plays up to his potential this season, the LSU secondary, which ranked eighth nationally in pass defense in 2011, should remain just as strong this season, even with three new starters.
This is a defense that could feature as many as nine 2013 NFL draft picks—Mingo, Montgomery, Reid, Logan, Edwards, Minter, Simon, Loston and Downs. It’s a unit that has the chance to match the performance that we witnessed from Alabama’s defense in 2011.
There are plenty of reasons why LSU will enter the upcoming season as the No. 1-ranked team in both major polls. Tyrann Mathieu was certainly a reason, but he just wasn’t as big of an irreplaceable difference-maker that the media made him out to be.
The Honey Badger will be missed, but his absence absolutely won’t cost LSU the chance to compete for an SEC championship and a BCS title this season. On paper, the Tigers are still the most talented team in college football, and they have all of the pieces in place to make 2012 another outstanding campaign.
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