LITTLE ROCK — LSU’s base defense will miss cornerback Morris Claiborne more than cornerback Tyrann Mathieu. There, I said it.
To reach the conclusion, one must be willing to chalk up Mathieu’s long list of individual awards in 2011 to a series of risk-taking plays that always seemed to pay dividends. Sooner or later, the risk taker gets burned.
His sophomore season was magical, but almost impossible to duplicate.
Every time Mathieu went for a steal instead of the ball carrier, the ball popped loose. Every time the oddly shaped sphere hit the ground, the bounce was ready-made for plucking by an end zone-bound Mathieu, it seemed.
In only two years, he set the LSU record with 11 forced fumbles, but, more than once, a teammate did the dirty work, enabling Mathieu to go for the spectacular. In 26 games, he was credited with creating 14 turnovers.
Tack on his primetime punt returns — a 92-yarder against Arkansas that tied the score at 14 when LSU had to win to get to the SEC championship game and his 62-yarder when Georgia led 10-0 in Atlanta — and he became the first defensive back invited to the Heisman Trophy ceremony in New York since Michigan’s Charles Woodson in 1997. Although he and Wisconsin running back Montee Ball were the only underclassmen among the five invitees, Mathieu is conspicuously absent from any short list of Heisman candidates this year, acknowledgment that cornerbacks have few big-play opportunities.
Former Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino called Mathieu’s punt return a "huge turning point" but also said the punt was mishit to the point that it wound up in the middle of the field instead of being up against the sideline as designed.
No doubt LSU will miss Mathieu the punt returner although there is a question about how many chances he would have had in 2012. Most teams would have avoided Mathieu at all costs, booting a sky-high 30-yarder or aiming for the sideline.
A first-round draft choice of the Dallas Cowboys, Claiborne is bigger than Mathieu and a better cornerback, sounder in all areas. He made six interceptions last year and broke up six other passes. His 11 career interceptions ranks No. 6 on LSU’s career list and there is no way to determine how many chances Mathieu got because the offense shied away from Claiborne.
Despite all the big plays by Mathieu, it was Claiborne who was selected by the league coaches as the Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year. None of them would say it publicly, but they would prefer to go at Mathieu rather than Claiborne and there are those who contend that Alabama’s A.J. McCarron picked on Mathieu in the BCS title game.
The Cowboys traded up eight spots and lost their second-round draft pick to get the No. 6 pick and use it on Claiborne. "He’s an elite player by the judgment of our scouts and our coaches," said Dallas owner Jerry Jones. "We certainly had other players we were looking at, but (Claiborne) was the only player we were willing to trade up for."
Mathieu has reportedly entered drug rehab in Houston and will not play football this year. When he enters the NFL draft, he is unlikely to go in the first round. He might have been better as a nickel back than a cornerback last year and one 2013 draft projection had LSU’s Tharold Simon, who is six inches taller than Mathieu, ahead of Mathieu among cornerbacks even before Mathieu was dismissed.
Freshmen are most likely to step in for Mathieu at cornerback. By the time LSU gets to the fourth game of the season against Auburn, whoever is in the lineup will be prepared. Besides, with that LSU pass rush, it might be that none of the opposing quarterbacks will have time to launch a pass.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.