Redemption is Sweeter than Honey
Coming out of high school, Tyrann Mathieu carried a chip on his shoulder. These days, he’s hauling around a lot of hardware, including the 17th Chuck Bednarik Award given to the nation’s top defensive player.
In two short years, no one in the game of college football has grown farther or faster than Mathieu, a shooting star who has exploded on to the landscape without a lot of warning. While it’s difficult to fathom today, having watched the sophomore repeatedly bring opposing offenses and special teams units to their knees, he was not a blue-chip recruit coming out of New Orleans’ St. Augustine High School. Quite the contrary.
Considered a little less than ideal sized for a cornerback at 5-9 and 160 pounds, Mathieu was fielding offers from the likes of Florida International, Miami (Ohio), Tulane and Louisiana-Monroe before LSU offered a scholarship after losing out on higher ranked prospects. No. 7 has been paying the Tigers back for their confidence ever since. It didn’t take long for him to make a bunch coaches from major programs regret not showing him more attention.
As a rookie in 2010, Mathieu percolated with potential, serving as a primary backup and the nickel back. Even a reserve role and absolutely no experience at this level could not prevent him from making a loud and definitive statement in the SEC, the sport’s toughest conference. The very definition of a game-changer from the defensive side of the ball, he made good use of his abbreviated reps, collecting 57 tackles, 8.5 stops for loss, 4.5 sacks, two picks, five forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. As a cornerback. A reserve corner. A reserve corner in his first year on campus. And that debut was just the beginning of what would become a rather memorable encore in Bator Rouge.
On Jan. 10, 2011, All-American LSU CB Patrick Peterson announced that he’d be foregoing his final year of eligibility in order to enter that April’s NFL Draft. Who’d have known at the time that the 16th Bednarik Award recipient was helping pave the way for the honor to remain the domain of the Tigers for at least one more year? With a vacancy in the secondary, Mathieu would no longer have to maximize his snaps from off the bench. He was no longer going to play second fiddle to anyone—inside or outside of his own program.
Mathieu became an overnight sensation in only his second season, dragging the infamous, unrelenting honey badger from the ranks of anonymity along with him. The sophomore was a big-play machine throughout LSU’s 13-win, SEC championship season. When the Tigers needed to change the momentum of a close game, the precocious corner rarely failed to deliver, injecting his speed, tenacity and swagger into the picture with incredible explosion and suddenness. Mathieu closed out his All-American season with 76 tackles, 7.5 stops for loss, two picks, six forced fumbles, five recoveries and four touchdowns, including two as a punt returner. However, numbers alone, as jaw-dropping as they were, don’t even begin to tell the story of the cornerback.
Mathieu was so much more than a collection of statistics in 2011. He was the epitome of a tone-setter, a game-changer who’s one strip of the ball or break on a route felt like three to the other team. His timing was impeccable, both as a fundamental cover corner, and as the Tiger who provided the spark when his team required it. Mathieu is one of those rare and coveted defenders who plays the game with all of the moxie and the passion of an offensive skill position player. He doesn’t just want the ball in his hands—he demands it. And he’s going to take whatever measures are necessary to get it. He is a new-age version of Deion Sanders, with the toughness and fearlessness to stick his nose into any and every situation.
In all sports, there are compilers, those who rack up numbers but rarely alter a team’s direction, and there are forces of nature, those who can will a squad to higher ground with their play and their presence. Mathieu is the latter, a truly transformational athlete who is impossible to label with one simple term. He plays cornerback, yes, but with the mentality of a wide receiver who’s constantly cajoling the quarterback to feed him the ball. He’s still not particularly big, yet he casts an enormous shadow every time he steps foot on a field. Mathieu is a 175-pound enigma, a fearless riddle for opposing offensive and special teams coaches to solve. He can’t be avoided since he covers so much ground. He won’t be outhustled because, well, few in the game can match his motor or his drive to impact the outcome of a game. He is the quintessential ball-hawk, an instinctual megawatt talent.
The chip remains on Mathieu’s shoulder, and probably will for the foreseeable future. Redemption for the electrifying sophomore has ended up being sweeter than honey.