Some teams are lucky to have a couple of playmakers in their secondary. LSU has so many, it’s hard for the Tigers to get them on the field all at once.
Tyrann Mathieu makes the headlines with his penchant for forcing spectacular turnovers. Morris Claiborne is considered the top NFL prospect of the bunch.
Eric Reid and Brandon Taylor are savvy safeties known for lighting up receivers who venture across the middle.
Then you have Ron Brooks and Tharold Simon, players who have spent most of the season as backups, but have made the most of their time -and then some - whenever called upon.
The group helped LSU pass a significant test last week in holding Arkansas to one offensive touchdown. It will get another one Saturday when the Tigers match up with Aaron Murray and Georgia in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game.
“It’s really kind of like a little competition back there between us about who can make plays,” Taylor said. “We all add up our tackles after the game and stuff like that.”
Reid missed the Arkansas game with a quadriceps injury, but is expected to re-enter the fray this week.
In his place, the Tigers moved Mathieu from his usual cornerback spot to free safety, and the sophomore from New Orleans responded by creating his usual havoc.
Mathieu leads the SEC with six forced fumbles as well as with four fumble recoveries. He leads LSU with 49 tackles, including 5.5 for losses.
Recently named a finalist for the Walter Camp National Player of the Year Award, Mathieu is the only player on the list who doesn’t play either quarterback or running back.
Claiborne, who ranks third in the conference with five interceptions, is a finalist for the Nagurski Award given to the nation’s top defender. The only Tiger on the preseason All-SEC first team, he is projected as a potential first-round draft pick should he leave LSU a year early.
Reid had perhaps LSU’s biggest play of the season, an interception of Alabama at the goal line that helped push the “Game of the Century” into overtime.
A credit to his leadership qualities, the veteran Taylor wears No. 18, continuing a tradition that symbolizes what it means to be a Tiger on and off the field.
Simon, who had eight tackles and an interception against Oregon to start the season, has broken up a team-best nine passes. Brooks has started only one game as LSU’s sixth defensive back, but was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Week after a stellar performance against Ole Miss.
If he didn’t have to worry about throwing passes against the Tigers this weekend, Murray said he’d be a big fan of their star defensive backs.
“It’s amazing just how many plays they make,” he said. “You talk about Mathieu, you’ve got to worry about him on special teams. They’re great athletes. You put them in the category, when I was watching the film, of just athletes like (linebacker) Jarvis Jones on our team. They’re football players. They know how to go out there and make plays, and they’re exciting to watch.”
The Tigers rank third in the SEC in pass defense, allowing 162.3 yards per game. They also rank third in pass efficiency defense at 95.9.
This comes when some expected the LSU secondary to take a step back.
Choosing to leave school a year early, star cornerback Patrick Peterson was the fifth pick of the 2011 draft after winning the Thorpe Award as a junior.
“It’s amazing when you can replace those type of guys the way we have,” Claiborne said. “We have a young team and some guys who have seen those guys do it previously. They want to do it better, and they’re just going out and putting the work into it.”
Claiborne said he often exchanges text messages with Peterson, who encourages his former teammate and expresses his joy over how well the secondary has played this year.
Last week, Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson threw an early touchdown pass for a 7-0 lead, but was kept under wraps the rest of the way.
LSU has another tough assignment in Murray, who has thrown a school-record 32 touchdowns and leads the SEC in passer efficiency.
Murray has played his best ball late in the year, with only four interceptions the past six games.
“It’s a good team to be a part of because we have so much depth and talent,” Taylor said. “If anybody gets hurt or anybody isn’t playing that week, there won’t be a letdown week in and week out. The backups have just as much talent as the starters.”