Aggression, elegance fuel Mathieu's game

Tyrann Mathieu has a graceful recklessness about him.

LSU’s sophomore cornerback plays like a daredevil, yet is extremely nimble when tracking down both players and the pigskin.

The fleet-footed ball hawk has been one of the most exciting players to watch this season because of his insatiable ability to float around the ball. He leads the Tigers in tackles with 30, has three tackles for loss, four pass breakups, one interception, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.

His strip and recovery against West Virginia last week moved him into first all-time at LSU with seven forced fumbles -- and he’s only 17 games into his career. Six of those forces and four of his five recoveries have come against top-20 opponents.

“Tyrann is a guy who has a knack for making big plays. He has great anticipation,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “We like to put him in a position where his natural interpretation of play allows him to be exceptional.”

Mathieu’s aggressive, almost wild style is something he’s had since high school. He wanted to prove that while he wasn’t the biggest player, he could be the toughest, most physical one.

With his history as a wide receiver, Mathieu has also perfected his catching skills, making quarterbacks weary to throw near the pugnacious nickel corner.

But it’s hard to throw away from him when he hones in on the ball like a heat-seeking missile.

“I always want the ball in my hands,” Mathieu said. “I just attach to it for some reason. I give Coach [John] Chavis and [defensive backs] Coach [John] Cooper a lot of [credit] too. They put me in the perfect position to keep me around the ball and make some big-time plays this year.”

With how electrifying Mathieu has been, you’d think he was a can’t-miss high school prospect. However, Mathieu was rated as a three-star prospect by ESPN recruiting services and LSU was his only major offer. His next biggest were from Southern Miss and SMU.

Respect didn’t flow and Mathieu thinks recruiting scouts overlooked him, but it only provided motivation.

Junior corner Morris Claiborne saw the chip Mathieu hauled in on his shoulder the summer before his freshman year. He also saw how special Mathieu could be.

The frosh flew around 7-on-7s, working with the vets instead of his classmates, making play after play. Claiborne recalled that Mathieu had three interceptions during the first workout and the starters left wide-eyed and stunned.

Claiborne said Mathieu played with a rare confidence seen in young corners. He was brawny, athletic and incredibly disruptive.

Today, Claiborne still sees that frenetic freshman, but he also sees maturity that has made him, and will continue to make him, a more dangerous defender.

“He can be as special as he wants to be,” Claiborne said. “I don’t think he’s reached his peak yet. He can go for more. Every week in and week out, you see him make different plays and you’re like, ‘Man, how did he do that?’ You see it, but you see it in practice and you see that he practices exactly how he plays.”

Mathieu admits he’s a little too physical in practice and has to be slowed by coaches. He’s overzealous when going for strips and he’s not afraid to hurl teammates to the turf.

“I try to practice like I plays so when game time comes, I just want to turn the light on,” he said. “It’s really about me being in the right spot at practice, getting interceptions at practice and picking up every fumble. Hopefully, those plays translate to Saturdays.”

Mathieu has garnered comparisons to former LSU great Patrick Peterson -- last year’s Jim Thorpe Award winner -- but he doesn’t pay attention to them. He’d rather remember what Peterson taught him than outplay him.

The most important advice Peterson gave his apprentice was that corners usually have three or four chances a game to make a significant play and he must capitalize each time.

So far, he’s done that.

As for if he’ll be a better player than Peterson, Claiborne said it’s hard to say because they’re so different. Peterson wasn’t this physical and Mathieu doesn’t have as much finesse. Both are great, Claiborne said, but in different ways.

What Claiborne does know is that there isn’t much of a defense against Mathieu. Offenses take the field knowing he’ll be the main antagonist.

“When Tyrann is anywhere on the field, there’s a chance that if you throw the ball to his side, you run the ball to his side, there’s a chance that he’s going to come up with that ball,” Claiborne said.