Assessing 2011's most intriguing players, in no particular order. Today: Sophomore LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu.
• Typecasting. It's not like Mathieu was short on hype as a recruit – he was pegged by Rivals as one of the top five players in Louisiana in the 2010 class – but it's not like anyone was picking him out of the crowd to make an immediate impact at this time last year, either. Even among the defensive backs in LSU's 29-man signing class, Mathieu was overshadowed by Eric Reid and Ronnie Vinson.
In part, that's because Mathieu is just short, listed (generously) at 5-foot-9, 180 pounds. Whatever doubts existed about his transition to the SEC, though, they were largely gone by the end of the first game, when he tracked down and stripped North Carolina quarterback T.J. Yates on a critical fourth down in the fourth quarter of an eventual LSU win. From that point on, Mathieu was entrenched in the Tigers' nickel package, and with his MVP effort in the Cotton Bowl, he set himself up as the unofficial heir apparent to Patrick Peterson as the brightest star in the Tiger secondary.
• At his best. This is one aggressive little man. You can infer that from the numbers – he finished fourth on the team and tops among DBs in total tackles, third with 4.5 sacks and fourth with 8.5 tackles for loss despite starting a single game, against Louisiana-Monroe – or you can just watch him play. For his size, Mathieu is a fearless hitter in the open field, quick to jump routes in coverage and a nightmare as a frequent (and frequently effective) blitzer in the Tigers' nickel package.
In fact, the nickel role played perfectly to his tendency as a classic ballhawk. Besides a pair of interceptions in coverage, Mathieu was credited with five forced fumbles for the season, more than all but one other player in the entire country – and that's not even counting his fourth quarter strip-n-score in the Cotton Bowl, which was called back for an unrelated penalty. Three or the loose balls that did count in Mathieu's favor came via his personal specialty: Stripping unsuspecting quarterbacks from behind during their windup. (Besides Yates, 2010 victims of Mathieu's blindside blitz party included Mississippi State's Chris Relf, Tennessee's Chris Simms and Texas A&M's Ryan Tanneyhill.) His knack as a blitzer also created interceptions for teammates against Mississippi State and Ole Miss. Wherever you find the ball, you'll find Mathieu waiting to inflict chaos.
• Worst-Case. Surprising niche production notwithstanding, Mathieu still has very little experience as an every-down, man-up corner. Unlike Peterson, who's about to be a top-five draft pick because of his freakish blend of size and speed, Mathieu's size is a concern against bigger receivers (of which there are many in the SEC) – as is his aggression and tendency to jump routes, which often served him well but cost the Tigers severely last November on one of the biggest plays of the season, a double move by Arkansas' Joe Adams on 4th-and-3 in the fourth quarter of a winner-take-all showdown for the SEC's at-large bid to the BCS:
There are no lingering questions about Mathieu's athleticism. But he's still unproven "on an island," and assuming that role as a regular starter could also take him away from the luxury of the heat-seeking missile role he played so well as a freshman.
• Fun Fact. "Tyrann, just talk about why only one eyeblack strip."
"Can you dip your shoulder on the dance floor, too?" Someone get that man a Pulitzer.
• What to expect in the fall. Mathieu is not only opening spring practice as the Tigers' No. 1 cornerback, but with fellow corner Morris Claiborne and safety Brandon Taylor out with injuries and safety Karnell Hatcher planning to switch to linebacker, he'll be arguably the most experienced DB on the field. It's still uncertain, though, whether defensive coordinator John Chavis will try to make his best playmaker into a "normal" corner manning up against receivers on the outside, or move him around in an effort to put Mathieu in position to recreate his freshman success. That could depend on how comfortable they are with the other candidates to fill the position opposite Claiborne, a returning starter who picked up a second-team All-SEC nod last year opposite Peterson.
If Tharold Simon and/or Ron Brooks can hold down a regular gig outside, Mathieu's roving assignments on passing downs may still make the most sense. If not, it may be time for him to settle into the workaday routine of a full-time cover man.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.