The last time LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu spoke with local reporters, he was one of the most talked-about players in America, being hyped as “The Honey Badger” and billed as a Heisman Trophy candidate.
When he broke his five-week silence Monday afternoon, the talk was more about his one-game suspension last month, his trash-talking and his inconsistent play in recent weeks.
Mathieu, a sophomore from New Orleans, said he was “humbled” by the turn of events and was focused on regaining his early season level of play as No. 1-ranked LSU continues its quest for a national championship.
All that early season attention, he said, just got to be too much.
“I’d be lying if I said it didn’t,” Mathieu said. “You try to stay focused and you try to look to the positive and not get caught up in that, but from time to time, we drift. You’ve just got to put things back into perspective.”
The Heisman talk, which is almost unprecedented for a sophomore defensive player, began almost as soon as Mathieu ripped the football away from an Oregon punt returner, picked the football up and ran into the end zone for the Tigers’ first points of the season in a 40-27 victory Sept. 3.
Three weeks later, Mathieu made an interception that set up a key touchdown in the Tigers’ 47-21 victory at West Virginia. A week later, he returned a fumble 23 yards for a touchdown against Kentucky, then a week later, made a diving interception in the end zone against Florida.
LSU was rolling at 6-0 and 3-0 in the Southeastern Conference, and the Honey Badger was the most talked-about player on the most talked about team in America.
Then came the game at Tennessee on Oct. 15. Mathieu, who had always talked a little trash on the field, started doing so on Twitter, and the Volunteers brought the Honey Badger back to earth. His only stat in the game was one assisted tackle, and he gave up two big pass plays.
Mathieu didn’t speak to reporters after that game and wouldn’t speak again locally until Monday, when he said all of the distractions might have affected his play at least in the Tennessee game.
“Maybe it did because you try to do a little bit more than what you’re usually doing,” he said. “You kind of listen to everybody saying what kind of plays you should be making and all the things that you should be doing, and really, you should do the things that you’ve been doing that got you to this point and keep improving on those things.”
But things got worse the following week when Mathieu, fellow cornerback Tharold Simon, and running back Spencer Ware were held out of the game against Auburn for violating an unspecified team rule. Multiple media reports said the trio failed a test for banned substances.
“Not being there with my teammates, not taking the field with those guys was pretty humbling,” Mathieu said. “That was definitely a hard pill to swallow.
“It means a lot to be a student at LSU, to wear those colors and take the field every Saturday with those guys. You work so hard. You practice all day so you can take the field with those guys, and that day that you can’t take the field with those guys, it feels like something is missing in your heart.”
Mathieu said his teammates and coaches were supportive while he was out.
“When Tyrann was out, he was calling me; he was apologizing to me,” cornerback Morris Claiborne said. “I was like, ?Hey, man, there’s no point in apologizing. Everybody makes mistakes. You’ve just got to learn from them and try not to do it again.’”
Mathieu and the other two returned to practice a week later during LSU’s open date, then played in the biggest game of the season Nov. 5 at Alabama.
Mathieu made five tackles in the game, but his most notable play was a holding penalty he committed on a punt return when he grabbed Tide cornerback Dre’ Kirkpatrick in what some saw as a cheap shot.
Saturday, in a 42-9 victory against Western Kentucky, Mathieu had his biggest impact since before the Tennessee game, making seven tackles, including a half-one for loss, breaking up a pass, and getting a quarterback hurry.
“I just felt like I was having fun again,” he said, “just running around all over the field, just having fun.”
Defensive tackle Michael Brockers said the humbling experiences might be helpful to Mathieu.
“You get a young guy like that, and he gets so much media attention,” Brockers said, “he needs to be humbled a little bit so he can focus on what he needs to focus on: the team instead of himself.”
Mathieu said he’s trying not to let his trash-talking get the better of him.
“I think my attitude definitely defines my play on the field,” he said. “It definitely gives me a lot of energy. It definitely hypes up a lot of the guys on the team. Maybe I should tone it down a little.”
Opponents have been trying to see if Mathieu can take as well as he dishes out.
“It seems like every play somebody’s just in my ear,” Mathieu said, “so I’ve just got to stay focused.”
Mathieu said coach Les Miles has asked him to use better judgment when he tweets.
“A lot of programs are just airing all of my tweets on TV,” Mathieu said. “So I think that’s a distraction to the team.
“I don’t think I want to attract attention to myself. I think I just get caught in the moment. I just have to watch what I’m tweeting.”
Mathieu said he’s glad he has faded into the background in recent weeks.
“I kind of like it in the back,” he said. “I definitely had to put a lot of things in perspective, realize what I was playing for, who I was playing for, why I do the things I do on the football field and off the football field. I’m playing for the guys in the locker room.”
“I’m just trying to be an all-around player, an all-around person. You want to be a good guy off the field and make good decisions.”