His flashier, ball-hawking counterpart got most of the headlines, and the quirky nickname, and the invite to New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist. But it was junior Morris Claiborne who caught the attention of SEC coaches, who voted him over Tyrann Mathieu as the league's Defensive Player of the Year, and of All-America voters, who made Claiborne a unanimous All-American, and of the Jim Thorpe Association, which awarded him as the best defensive back in the nation. And it's Claiborne who's about to cash in on his lofty status among pro scouts, according to the Associated Press, which reports that Claiborne has decided to give up his senior season for a top-10 projection in April's NFL Draft.
Consider: LSU lost the best cornerback in college football in 2010 and significantly improved against the pass in 2011, on the way to finishing second nationally (behind only Alabama) in total defense and scoring defense during an undefeated regular season. Claiborne was an anchor in that effort — the steady, air-tight cover man to Mathieu's regimen of free-range chaos — but on any other defense, he would have been considered a walking highlight reel: With his momentum-crushing kick return at West Virginia, his high-flying interception at Mississippi State, his winding interception return to set up a touchdown against Tennessee, his clutch interception in the second half of the regular season win at Alabama and his icing pick-six in the SEC Championship win over Georgia, Claiborne had more big plays to his name than most starting secondaries managed all year.
How to replace that, exactly, is now LSU's number one priority as it braces for another eight months of hype as the overwhelming favorite to return to the top of the preseason polls in August. The Tigers are losing at least four other defensive starters from Monday night's BCS Championship loss to Alabama — defensive end Kendrick Adams, linebackers Stefoin Francois and Ryan Baker and safety Brandon Taylor — as well as two senior quarterbacks and two senior starters on the offensive line. (The resident deep threat, junior Rueben Randle, has yet to commit either way.) None of them, however, are All-Americans, and all have blue-chip understudies in the wings who are expected to carry the torch without a hitch. Assuming there won't be any trouble replacing Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee under center — which seems like a pretty safe assumption after Monday night — Claiborne's cleats will be two of the toughest to fill in college football.
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