The little guy who was always in the middle of things on the football field captured young Minkah Fitzpatrick’s attention.
LSU's Tyrann Mathieu was everywhere all at once, making stops behind the line of scrimmage and interceptions beyond it and he was dazzling with the ball in his hands. Then a teenager, Fitzpatrick became enamored with that style of play.
Fitzpatrick, now a junior defensive back for Alabama, was a Florida fan in his younger days — or, more to the point, he was a Tim Tebow fan. Because of that, the New Jersey native familiarized himself with the Gators’ frequent opponents.
Though Mathieu and Tebow never played on the same field in college — Tebow graduated after the 2009 season, while Mathieu’s freshman season was 2010 — he still followed the Gators, and that was how he first discovered Mathieu.
“They were playing one game, and I saw Tyrann Mathieu making plays all over the field in different positions,” Fitzpatrick said. “I was really impressed with the way he played, so I watched his highlight tape.
“I wanted to model my game after his game.”
He has been successful doing so.
Fitzpatrick became just the third player in history to win both the Bednarik Award (given to the nation’s top defensive player) and the Thorpe Award (given to the nation’s top defensive back) in the same season — joining Charles Woodson and Mathieu’s former LSU teammate, Patrick Peterson.
Leading up to Monday’s national championship game, Fitzpatrick has recorded nine career interceptions (four of which were returned for scores), two blocked kicks and 15 tackles for loss.
Like Mathieu did at LSU, Fitzpatrick can alter the game from several different spots on the field.
He started his career defending the slot as Alabama’s nickel back, but he has also seen extensive playing time at outside corner and safety. And, most importantly, he has excelled at each position.
“I think Minkah is probably as versatile as any player that maybe I can remember coaching in the secondary,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “He can play in the deep part of the field. He can play in the short field. He's a good blitzer. He can play man-to-man. He's a good matchup guy. He has really good size so he can cover bigger guys. He's athletic enough to cover smaller guys. And he's played every position in the secondary.”
What that allows Alabama to do, Saban said, is put the best 11 players on the field regardless of the situation.
His versatility also allows him to neutralize a key threat on opposing teams.
In Alabama’s 24-6 Sugar Bowl win against Clemson, Fitzpatrick was largely tasked with shutting down Hunter Renfrow, who had tortured Alabama in two previous meetings out of the slot.
With Fitzpatrick on him most of the game, Renfrow was a non-factor, catching five passes for 31 yards.
One of the things that made Mathieu a fan favorite at LSU was the way he punched above his weight on a football field, but Fitzpatrick (6-1, 202 pounds) is larger than Mathieu (5-9, 175 when he left LSU).
It is the instinctive side of Mathieu’s game that Fitzpatrick seeks to emulate. He supplements his instincts by devouring opponents' game film, reducing his reaction time when the ball is in play.
“You know the game, so when you’re out there you’re reacting to everything, everything is based off instincts and what you see,” Fitzpatrick said. “Nothing’s forced, you don’t hesitate too much, you just go out there and play your game. That’s it, and that’s the way (Mathieu) plays for sure."