Just two years ago, LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu was one of the best all-around players in college football. Unfortunately, off-field issues derailed his collegiate career and left his NFL future in doubt, but now that he is committed to getting back on track, Mathieu may very well fulfill his potential at the next level.
Mathieu was among the most popular players in college football during the 2011 season as his tenacious play helped lead the Tigers to the National Championship Game against Alabama. Not only was Mathieu the SEC Defensive Player of the Year, SEC Championship Game MVP and Chuck Bednarik Award winner, but he was also named a Heisman Trophy finalist.
That is no small feat for a cornerback, but there is no question that Mathieu deserved it. With 76 total tackles, nine passes defended, six forced fumbles, two interceptions and two punt return touchdowns, Mathieu was one of the most dangerous weapons in college football that year, regardless of position.
Mathieu's play was so awe-inspiring that he was given the nickname "Honey Badger." The honey badger is a small animal known for its toughness, so the name certainly fit Mathieu's demeanor and on-field performance. He isn't the biggest player (currently listed at 5'9" and 186 pounds), but Mathieu always gave it his all for the Tigers and did some amazing things against much bigger players.
After such a magical 2011 season, it seemed as though Mathieu was set. He could have potentially entered the NFL draft following his junior campaign in 2012 and been a top-10 selection, or he could have gone back to LSU and built upon his already impressive resume.
However, poor personal choices ultimately resulted in Mathieu almost losing everything.
According to Jim Kleinpeter of NOLA.com, Mathieu was dismissed from the LSU football team prior to the 2012 season due to a failed drug test. Prior to this incident, he had already served a one-game suspension in 2011 for testing positive for marijuana.
His dismissal resulted in Mathieu going to rehab before once again enrolling at LSU. He never played another game for the Tigers, but he seemed to be back on the right track to some degree by taking the appropriate steps to help him with his issues.
Mathieu has been forthcoming about his struggles with substance abuse since then and he has been transparent throughout the draft process. According to Marc Sessler of NFL.com, Mathieu was asked by an anonymous NFL assistant coach how many drug tests he failed while at LSU. Mathieu reportedly responded by saying that he "quit counting at 10," so it's obvious that he was dealing with a significant problem.
In one respect, NFL team officials obviously don't want to hear about a coveted prospect failing that many drug tests. It's important to be honest and put all the facts out there, though, and that has been the case with Mathieu.
If Mathieu can figure out a way to put his drug issues behind him, then he's bound to be a better player and person because of it.
According to Albert Breer of NFL.com, Mathieu passed the drug test that was administered to him at the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine. That may seem like a small victory to most, but Mathieu has been battling demons, so it's significant for him and his draft stock. Teams are still going to be wary of investing a high pick in him; however, it's a definite step in the right direction.
From a pure talent standpoint, Mathieu is a first-round-caliber player in this draft. Only Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner rivals him in that respect at the cornerback position. Mathieu obviously still has a lot of growing up to do and he has to prove himself every day. At the same time, he has what it takes to be a star player in the NFL.
Mathieu's drug issues likely cost him a first-round pick and millions of dollars, but as long as he stays on the straight and narrow and works hard, he can recoup that money with a big contract down the line.
His NFL career could have been over before it started. Now, however, he has a golden opportunity to redeem himself. There are no guarantees, but if Mathieu takes his dogged approach on the field and applies it to his personal life, then he'll be an absolute steal in this year's draft, and more importantly, he'll prove to himself that he has used his past problems as motivation for future success.
Follow @MikeChiari on Twitter