Tyrann Mathieu has been one of the most-asked about players during LSU’s preseason camp.
Is he a cornerback?
Is he a nickelback?
Is he the next Patrick Peterson?
The answers are:
Yes, he’s playing cornerback at times in the base defense, though Tharold Simon gets the most reps in Peterson’s old spot opposite Morris Claiborne, and Ron Brooks will get some as well;
Yes, he’s still playing primarily nickelback, the position he excelled at as a true freshman last season;
And no, he’s not the next Patrick Peterson, though he inherited Peterson’s jersey No. 7 - he’s the first Tyrann Mathieu.
That means he’s a distinctive player, one who played a lot bigger than his size (5-foot-9, 180 pounds) and lack of experience might have suggested before last season.
“The thing that makes him special is that his mind operates with the ability to make big plays,” coach Les Miles said. “He always thinks there is something else to do in the play that is in question. Those types of guys come up with turnovers, with picks and they knock it out and force turnovers.”
Last season, Mathieu forced five fumbles - the most in the Southeastern Conference - and recovered three - tied for the most in the SEC. He made two interceptions, led the team with seven pass breakups, and made 8.5 tackles for loss, including 4.5 sacks.
“The plays that you just didn’t think you could make, he’s finding ways mentally to make them,” Miles said. “That is the difference in him (compared to) the guys that we have had here that ran the 40 faster. I don’t know if there is a more sudden player in college football than him - a guy who can put his foot in the ground, change direction and see the play that needs to be made.”
Mathieu immediately established himself as a playmaker last season, making nine tackles, 1.5 for loss, a sack and forcing a fumble in the season-opening victory against North Carolina.
“To have a corner come in and do what Tyrann Mathieu did for us last year won’t happen every year,” defensive coordinator John Chavis said. “We put him in position, but there were a lot of things that he did on instinct. In terms of being a football player, he’s a playmaker. It doesn’t matter where you put him, he makes plays.”
Mathieu punctuated his season with an award-winning performance in the Tigers’ victory against Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl in January. He was named the game’s Defensive Most Outstanding Player after making seven tackles, including a sack, forcing two fumbles, recovering a fumble, making an interception and breaking up a pass.
Mathieu finished fourth on the team with 57 tackles and the SEC coaches named him to their all-freshmen team.
“If you look at the season he had,” Chavis said, “Tyrann Mathieu was at the top of the chart.”
Though Mathieu’s name probably won’t be at the top of the depth chart in the base defense, there’s no doubt he’s considered a starter and one of the team’s top defenders.
“The corner spot is one that he came in and trained for,” Miles said. “He understands it. He was our starter in nickel, and played about two thirds of every game just in the nickel spot. Few offenses are ready for his quickness. I like him at both spots.”
Mathieu said he understands the value of Simon using his size (6-3, 190) in man-to-man coverage at corner, allowing Mathieu to remain a playmaker in nickel.
“Tharold will be a great player here,” Mathieu said. “He gives us a chance to do a lot of things from the different schemes. I’ll be at cornerback too, but nickelback is a spot that I love to do. Cornerback is kind of man-to-man, but as far as nickelback you have to know route combinations, you have to know what the quarterback’s reads are and what the tackle’s reads are.
“Tharold Simon gives us that advantage at cornerback, so it gives me a chance to hang around the ball and use my instincts.”
As often as LSU plays with five or six defensive backs, there will be plenty of snaps to go around for the defensive backs.
“It’s going to work well because he plays a lot of nickel and dime and we’re going to play a lot of that this season,” Simon said. “He’ll get his shots at nickel and he’ll get his shots at corner. I’m going to get my shots at corner.
“He’s got a really big heart. He thinks he could tackle a 400-pound person. He’s got the most heart I’ve ever seen out of a little dude.”
The Tigers are expected to open in nickel against Oregon’s spread offense Sept. 3.
“I think nickel is probably our base defense now,” Mathieu said. “It works for the better, just keeping the (best) 11 players on the field at one time. Against more pro-style offenses I’ll be at cornerback. As far as spread teams, I’ll be around the ball.”
Miles said Mathieu has excelled during preseason camp.
“There’s a mentality that certain guys possess,” Miles said, “where it doesn’t make any difference whether it was hot or it was cold, if the wind was blowing or it wasn’t, I am just going to come out here and I am going to win and I am going to play my butt off and it didn’t make any difference how late into camp and I think he has that. He just continues to improve, continues to work hard and really has his own barometer on what he is expecting himself to do.” v