For two years, Tyrann Mathieu played the game of college football at a kamikaze speed and intensity that recalled a peewee football player instructed to “get the ball” and nothing more. Mathieu’s ability to reek havoc on opponents – whether through his precocious ability to force fumbles or return punts – propelled LSU to a 13-0 regular season record last season and earned him a spot as a Heisman Trophy finalist.
News of Mathieu’s dismissal from LSU on Friday morning came with the same type of full steam, out of nowhere force that he himself had displayed on the field so often. LSU coach Les Miles announced Mathieu had violated team rules – read: Mathieu failed a third drug test – and thus would no longer play in Purple and Gold. Opposing fans cheered with glee while the mood was a bit more subdued, as you would imagine, from Tiger fans.
Mathieu’s departure leaves a massive hole for the Tigers – one I will examine in a moment – but Miles’s teams have performed superbly in the past when faced with adversity. In 2007, LSU won the BCS National Championship after starting QB Ryan Perrilloux’s dismissal before the season. Last season, Mathieu helped the team reach the BCS National Championship despite starting the season without suspended QB Jordan Jefferson.
Mathieu’s departure leaves the Tigers’ corner position lacking in both experience and depth – a surprising development for a team that has earned the nickname Cornerback U with back-to-back Jim Thorpe Award winners recognizing the nation’s top defensive back. Three of LSU’s top four cornerbacks from 2011 are gone, with only junior Tharold Simon remaining.
With this shortage in mind, I used Rivals.com to look at LSU’s cornerback recruits from 2008-2012 to highlight how the program arrived at its current predicament – i.e., needing to rely on freshman cornerbacks to make its second straight BCS National Championship Game appearance.
NOTE: All star and overall position rankings below are from Rivals.
Derrick Bryant – ***, 26th overall cornerback, Suwanee, Ga. Was moved to safety, never started a game.
Patrick Johnson (Patrick Peterson) – *****, 1st overall, Pompano Beach, Fla. 2011 First round pick of the Arizona Cardinals after winning the Jim Thorpe Award following his junior season.
Ryan St. Julien – ***, 39th overall, New Iberia, La. Cut after his redshirt sophomore season.
Brandon Taylor – ****, 9th overall, Franklinton, La. Three-year starter at strong safety, drafted in third round of 2012 NFL draft by San Diego Chargers.
Overview: Two draftees, two washouts. Only one player started at cornerback (Peterson), but he was arguably the best at the position in school history. Also, Taylor had a very productive career, at a position that better suited him than the one he was recruited to play.
Morris Claiborne – ***, 58th overall athlete, Fair Park, La. Claiborne followed a similar trajectory as Peterson, winning the Jim Thorpe Award his junior year en route to a selection as the first round draft pick of the Dallas Cowboys in the 2012 NFL draft.
Overview: It’s easy to forget Claiborne started his LSU career on the offensive side of the ball. He rivals Peterson as one of the best cover corners in LSU history. It’s worth noting that Ron Brooks, who also starred in LSU’s defensive backfield and was a 2012 draftee of the San Diego Chargers, signed with the Tigers in 2007.
Tyrann Mathieu – ****, 13th overall cornerback, New Orleans, La. Mathieu was a first team All-American and a Heisman finalist in his sophomore season. Dismissed before his junior season. Was not an elite cover corner but provided LSU options on defense.
Tharold Simon – ****, 19th overall cornerback, Eunice, La. As a sophomore last season, Simon finished third in the SEC in pass breakups with 10, while playing as LSU’s No. 3 cornerback in nickle and dime situations. Bigger than either Peterson or Claiborne, but still a smooth runner. Could be a Top 15 overall pick in next year’s NFL draft if he plays up to his potential this fall.
Ronnie Vinson – ****, 13th overall athlete, New Orleans, La. Failed to make post-spring two-deep depth chart this spring after making minimal impact his first two seasons. Transferred to Tennessee State.
Overview: Only Simon left from a bumper crop at cornerback, but he should be a stud this season. Given the events of the past few months Vinson could have possibly been the team’s nickle or dime cornerback. It’s also possible he would have been passed by a true freshman this fall. Now, with Mathieu’s dismissal, LSU could have two true freshmen on the field on obvious passing situations this season.
Jalen Collins – ****, 22nd overall cornerback, Olive Branch, Miss. Collins redshirt in 2011 largely due to the talent in front of him – Claiborne, Mathieu, Simon and Ron Brooks. Won the “Most Improved” award this spring. Was expected to backup Mathieu. Either going to start or be the nickelback.
Micah Eugene – ***, 63rd overall cornerback, Lafayette, La. Moved to strong safety. Was expected to backup Craig Loston this season as a redshirt freshman but now may provide depth at cornerback.
David Jenkins – ****, 21st overall cornerback, Carrollton, Texas. Left the program in June.
Ronald Martin – ***, 60th overall cornerback, White Castle, La. Played sparingly as a true freshman at safety. Expected to backup All-America candidate Eric Reid at free safety this season.
Overview: Collins will be pressed into heavy action this season. Eugene and Martin will serve as backups, although now it looks like Eugene might play corner in nickle or dime situations. Jenkins was listed as Simon’s backup exiting the spring.
Jalen Mills – ***, 48th overall cornerback, DeSoto, Texas.
Derrick Raymond – ***, N/A overall cornerback, Metairie, La.
Dwayne Thomas – ****, 14th overall cornerback, New Orleans, La.
Overview: All three are over 6-feet. Mills is getting reps with the first team, according to New Orleans Times-Picayune sportswriter Randy Rosetta. Thomas is expected to be a stud in time. Raymond’s a bit of an unknown but has good size at 6-foot-2.
LSU has five cornerbacks at the moment – four of whom have never played a down of college football. Three LSU cornerback recruits between 2008 and 2011 were drafted (including Brandon Taylor), four transferred, were cut, or dismissed, three were moved to safety, and two remain as corners on this year’s team. LSU should be OK with Simon and Mills/Collins, but it doesn’t have much room for injuries. LSU is fortunate that it will have A) a strong pass rush and B) two athletic safeties (Eric Reid and Craig Loston) to take some of the heat off the rookies at corner this season.