Mathieu was a rare game-changer

Originally Published: August 10, 2012
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

I'll miss watching the Honey Badger taking what he wanted.

I'll miss seeing plays like Tyrann Mathieu's electrifying 92-yard punt return for a touchdown in then-No. 1 LSU's 41-17 rout of Arkansas last season.

[+] EnlargeTyrann Mathieu
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesAt his best, Tyrann Mathieu was electric as in this punt return against Arkansas.

I'll miss watching Mathieu dance around multiple defenders like he did when Georgia inexplicably punted to him twice in last season's SEC championship game.

Don't get me wrong: Mathieu wasn't the best player in the country. Heck, he wasn't even the best cornerback on his own team in 2011. That honor belonged to former LSU cornerback Mo Claiborne, a first-round pick of the Dallas Cowboys in this spring's NFL draft. Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron showed us that Mathieu had plenty of shortcomings as a cornerback in the Crimson Tide's 21-0 victory over the Tigers in last season's Allstate BCS National Championship Game, throwing over him time and time again.

But there wasn't another player in the country who could turn around a game at the drop of a hat like the Honey Badger did, both on defense and special teams. Last season, Mathieu had five fumble recoveries, six forced fumbles, two interceptions, led the Tigers with 76 tackles and scored four touchdowns, two on punt returns and two on fumble returns. He was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy and won the Chuck Bednarik Award as the country's top defender. In 26 career games at LSU, the Honey Badger created 14 turnovers himself.

Make no mistake: College football lost one of its most exciting players on Friday when Mathieu, a junior from New Orleans, was dismissed from the team for an undisclosed violation of team rules. Mathieu was in and out of coach Les Miles' doghouse during the past two seasons; he was suspended for last season's game against Auburn after he and a couple of LSU teammates tested positive for synthetic weed and then ran into trouble with Twitter this summer.

A source with knowledge of the situation told ESPN.com that LSU's dismissal came after the cornerback's repeated violations of LSU's substance abuse policy for athletes.

Miles wouldn't divulge the reason, but the LSU coach didn't seem to have much wiggle room in the decision.

"We'll miss the guy," Miles said during a news conference in Baton Rouge, La., on Friday. "The football team's got to go on. We'll have to fill the void."

[+] EnlargeTyrann Mathieu
AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)Coach Les Miles said LSU "lost a quality person" in dismissing Mathieu.

It's certainly a huge void to fill. The Tigers, who enter the 2012 season ranked No. 1 in the coaches' poll, are equipped to replace Mathieu in the secondary with Tharold Simon and Eric Reid ready to take over. But who's going to replace Mathieu's ability to make big plays over and over again when the Tigers needed them most? At only 5-feet-9, 175 pounds, Mathieu was one of the smallest players on the team, but he was the LSU player whom opponents feared the most.

With three weeks to go before the start of the season, Mathieu's dismissal might very well put defending BCS national champion Alabama back in the driver's seat in the SEC West. It might even close the gap between LSU and Arkansas a little bit more. The Crimson Tide must replace several defensive stars, including linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw, as well as safety Mark Barron and cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick. LSU, which will break in a new quarterback, just leveled the playing field some by booting Mathieu off the team.

And if LSU is fortunate enough to meet a team like Southern California in the BCS National Championship Game, how much more relaxed will Trojans quarterback Matt Barkley be knowing that the Honey Badger isn't lurking on the other side of the field?

If you know anything about Mathieu's past, his dismissal might not come as much of a surprise. He was largely raised by his grandparents and later an uncle. His mother has battled drug addiction throughout her life, and his biological father has spent most of his adult life in prison. LSU afforded Mathieu an opportunity to outrun his past, but he failed to take advantage.

Dismissing Mathieu couldn't have been an easy decision for Miles. Mathieu can transfer to an FCS school and play immediately this season and then enter next spring's NFL draft if he wants. If he transfers to another FBS team, he'll have to sit out the 2012 season under NCAA rules. Despite his ability to make big plays, he isn't considered a surefire NFL cornerback. He still has a lot to prove to NFL scouts on the field.

"At the time, I think it's an opportunity to redirect and I think he still has a bright future," Miles said. "He can still accomplish all the goals he set for himself. It's not going to be easy, but it's going to be doable."

LSU lost one of its best players on Friday, and college football fans lost one of the sport's greatest entertainers.

"For the team, we lost a quality person," Miles said. "We enjoyed working him. He was a great teammate. I think he gave us a lot of examples we can learn from. I think he is a quality, quality guy who had a behavior issue. That's it. Certainly the overview of his time with us is positive."

Mark Schlabach | email

College Football and Basketball