I spend most of my falls and winters breaking down NFL football players and whiffing on Sunday prognostication, but every Saturday my significant other and I make college football watching a priority. She is an LSU alum. I pull for Notre Dame. Since the Tigers have had better luck than the Irish in recent years -- and I'm just happy she wants to watch football at all -- we usually flip on LSU if there's a scheduling conflict. I watched almost every snap the title-contending Tigers played last season. And on the Purple and Gold, there is a tiny, mighty mouse-type player who consistently tilts field position. This player wears No. 7. He plays with an awful lot of swagger, which is part of the reason he stands out. But it's mostly because he is a dynamite football player.
Before we begin dissecting Tyrann Mathieu's in-game performance, skill set, strengths and weaknesses, I think it is crucial to preface with one unequivocal fact: Mathieu is the best player on LSU's defense. The Tigers' staff knows it. SEC offensive coaches know it. Morris Claiborne was a higher NFL draft pick than Mathieu probably will be, and strong-side defensive end Barkevious Mingo may be, too. But that's because NFL teams prioritize long, rangy outside cornerbacks and explosive edge rushers. Mathieu is a better football player than the both of them.
For this column, I re-watched five of LSU's 2011 games: at West Virginia, versus Florida, at Tennessee, versus Arkansas, and versus Georgia. These were my takeaways.
1. Mathieu is used at virtually every position in the back seven.
I charted each of Mathieu's snaps from the five games. He played slot corner on 36 percent of the downs, outside corner on 32.5 percent, and safety on 10 percent. Mathieu lined up at linebacker -- usually to rush the quarterback -- on 21 percent of his plays. A "joker" in LSU's defense, Mathieu's assignment differs from one snap to the next. The LSU staff seems to believe he is an equally effective cover man, run-support defender, and pass rusher. And Mathieu wreaks havoc wherever he lines up, making plays sideline to sideline and causing ball carriers constant disruption.
2. Mathieu has a relentless motor and never gives up on a play.
Mathieu loves football, and it's evident in his on-field performance. Even when a play goes to the opposite side of the field, Mathieu is as good a bet as any LSU defender to make the tackle. He possesses incredible closing speed and is relentless in pursuit. In the Florida and West Virginia games, respectively, Mathieu ran down Chris Rainey and Tavon Austin from behind. Rainey clocked a 4.45 forty at February's Combine. Austin might be the most dangerous skill-position player in the entire country. Mathieu accelerates on a dime and reaches top speed almost instantaneously. I suspect he'll run low 4.4s after he declares for next year's draft.
3. The idea that Mathieu can't cover is a myth.
Mathieu got beat on a handful of pass plays in LSU's BCS title game loss to Alabama, and since then a perception has emerged that he can't cover. It's true that Mathieu isn't a shutdown outside corner like Claiborne or Joe Haden. But he is a ball-hawking pass breakup machine, and anything but a liability in coverage. I charted every pass thrown at Mathieu in the five games. Keep in mind LSU faced quality passing attacks for the most part. Arkansas' Tyler Wilson, Geno Smith of West Virginia, and Georgia's Aaron Murray will all be drafted.
Over the course of the five games, 21 throws were attempted into Mathieu's coverage. Eight were complete for 144 yards with no touchdowns. Mathieu got his hands on nine of the 21 passes, picking off two with five breakups. At the end of two of the completions, Mathieu stripped the receiver and recovered a fumble. The one long reception that stood out was a 44-yard gain by Tennessee's Da'Rick Rogers. A beastly presence at 6-foot-3, 206, Rogers outmuscled Mathieu's jam off the line on a slot route and got open over the middle. This was a mismatch in Rogers' favor, as he has at least six inches and 30 pounds on Mathieu, who is listed at 5-foot-9, 175.
All told, the quarterbacks went 8-of-21 (38.1 percent) for 144 yards (6.9 YPA), no touchdowns, and two interceptions throwing at Mathieu. He caused two more turnovers on post-catch strips.
4. Pound for pound, Mathieu is the most physical player in the country.
I have not seen every player in the country, but I'd still say this with confidence. I would place bets on this player. As a tackler, Mathieu sifts through trash smoothly and is terrific in one-on-one situations. I saw him break down and tackle Georgia RB Isaiah Crowell mano-a-mano in the open field after diagnosing the run play from his deep safety position. Against Arkansas, Mathieu again attacked from deep and popped the ball loose from RB Dennis Johnson after stacking him up.
Mathieu separates the football from ball carriers. He explodes into tackles, and his knack for run support will keep him on the field for early downs. He won't be a sub-package DB only. Mathieu closes on skill-position players as if he's been shot from a cannon. He is a violent collision seeker.
Mathieu is a ferocious hitter, and fearless on special teams. He plays on three of the four units -- punt return, and kickoff and punt cover. As a punt returner, Mathieu all but refuses to fair catch.
5. In terms of pro prospects, Mathieu has a high "floor."
At the very least, he'll be a ball-hawking slot corner with homerun-hitting return value.
Mathieu is a dynamic returner, and those skills will translate to the NFL because he possesses top-notch elusiveness and long speed. Mathieu makes lightning-quick cuts on punts, combining lateral moves with explosive bursts. On his 62-yard return score against Georgia, Mathieu made seven would-be tacklers miss en route to pay dirt. Again versus Georgia, Mathieu fielded a punt at the 36 and returned it 46 yards, this time making eight men miss. On his return touchdown versus Arkansas, Mathieu made three guys miss in a short area and went the distance from 92 yards out.
6. In the NFL, Mathieu will be a weapon with which defenses attack offenses.
The NFL needs players like this. Mathieu is a versatile takeaway specialist who more than holds his own in coverage. He has loose hips, is a quick-twitch reactor, and could be an answer for the Wes Welkers and Percy Harvins of the NFL. For 5-foot-9, 175, Mathieu has plus arm length, giving him a big advantage for pass deflections. Long arms also come in handy for strips. Mathieu is a skilled and experienced blitzer off the edge. While some teams may struggle to "find a fit" for Mathieu in terms of positioning, a quality evaluator will identify him as a movable chess piece. A defender who impacts turnover margin, time of possession, and field position on a regular basis.
7. Have some perspective when watching Mathieu this year.
Mathieu is listed at cornerback, but he's not a shutdown corner, per se. We haven't seen many players like him. If you're watching Mathieu's 2012 games and trying to pigeonhole-project him to one particular NFL position, I'd say you're doing it wrong. He is not a one-position player.
Mathieu was a 19-year-old true sophomore last season earning first-team All-SEC recognition from the conference's coaches as well as a trip to New York as a Heisman finalist. Four DBs made the SEC coaches' first-team defense: Mathieu, Claiborne, Mark Barron, and first-team All-American safety Bacarri Rambo from Georgia. That's awfully nice company. In 2012, opponents will have a target on Mathieu's back, likely double teaming him at times to keep him out of plays. Every catch Mathieu allows will be scrutinized. Analysts will relentlessly question his NFL "fit."
8. My NFL forecast for Mathieu.
In addition to cover skills and position, Mathieu's lack of ideal size will be talked up this year as a major factor working against his NFL outlook. I'd encourage you to consider that lazy analysis. It might be problematic if Mathieu wasn't so physical, or if he was slow. He is neither of those things.
Mathieu's profile as an inside-out cornerback reminds me of Antoine Winfield, who was drafted with the 28th overall pick out of Ohio State in 1999. Winfield is listed at 5-foot-9, 180. Also like Mathieu, he is an undersized corner who compensates with physicality, football intelligence, and playmaking ability. Winfield has been to three Pro Bowls and accounted for 48 career turnovers.
My best guess is that Mathieu will declare for the 2013 NFL draft this January, test well at the Combine, and be drafted in the 20s next April by an annual playoff contender worried much less about size restrictions than football-playing ability. I think Tyrann Mathieu is going to go to Pro Bowls in the NFL. I think he will be a multiple-phase difference maker.