LSU's Mathieu's Heisman hopes won't end this year
Down on the bayou, they've been saying, "Honey Badger for Heisman," for months.
Still, the first time Tyrann Mathieu heard the nickname LSU fans had given him, he wasn't all that thrilled.
"I didn't like the 'honey' part," recalled Mathieu, a star cornerback for the unbeaten No. 1 Tigers. "I didn't think it was very macho at all."
Mathieu's discomfort with the nickname softened when members of LSU's sports information staff showed him a popular YouTube video featuring the small, fearless honey badger wreaking havoc on the African savannah while a narrator humorously said things like, "Honey badger don't care ... he just takes what he wants.
The 5-foot-9, 180-pound Mathieu, who is considered small for a major college football player, was at once impressed with the ferocity of the little animal and also amused by the narration.
"I cried laughing," he recalled, chuckling even at the memory of it.
"It's a way to describe how he plays," LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis said. "He's not opposed to forcing his will on the field."
Mathieu appreciates now how the catchy nickname drew more attention to the mayhem he caused opposing offenses, and to his highlight-reel exploits on special teams.
His penchant for big plays this season is a big reason why LSU will be meeting Alabama in New Orleans for the BCS national championship on Jan. 9. And along the way, he apparently caught the eyes of enough Heisman Trophy voters to get invited to New York this weekend as a finalist for the award along Alabama's Trent Richardson, Stanford's Andrew Luck, Baylor's Robert Griffin III and Wisconsin's Montee Ball.
"It's obviously a prestigious award and it's so great to be able to be there with the Andrew Lucks and the Trent Richardsons," Mathieu said. "It definitely puts you in an elite group of people in college football."
Chavis has been coaching defensive players in the Southeastern Conference — a league known for producing NFL defensive stars — since he joined Tennessee's staff in 1989 and considers Mathieu a rare athlete.
"I've been in this business a long time. There's been other guys similar, but he as much natural ability as anyone I've been around," Chavis said. "I'd love to tell you it's all coaching and we taught him everything he knows, but he's been blessed with that ability."
LSU has a long history of ball-hawking defenders dating back to the famed "Chinese Bandits" of the great LSU teams of the late 1950s. As recently as last season, the defensive backfield was led by cornerback and punt returner Patrick Peterson, now a rookie and emerging star with the Arizona Cardinals.
Although Peterson was not a Heisman finalist, he won the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation's best defensive back and the Bednarik Award as the nation's top defender. He was also a close friend and mentor to Mathieu, who took Peterson's No. 7 jersey this season.
Peterson used to tell Mathieu, "Don't try to be me, be better than me."
By winning the Bednarik Award this season and making it to New York as a Heisman finalist, Mathieu could argue he has done that. Yet Mathieu noted, "I don't really think about it like that."
"I just thank Patrick for all that he's taught me, the things that he's showed me on the field and off," Mathieu continued. "That's why I took his number. All the things that Patrick couldn't accomplish, I was going to work hard to accomplish those goals for myself and Patrick."
Only two years ago, Mathieu was playing high school football at St. Augustine, a strict private Catholic school in New Orleans that has seen numerous graduates go on to play major college football. Mathieu had thrived as a play-making cornerback, wild cat quarterback and receiver, yet he was largely overlooked because of his size. LSU was the only SEC school to offer him a scholarship.
When he arrived in Baton Rouge, his headiness impressed defensive coaches so much they decided to use him as a nickel back as a true freshman.
"Right away we could see he had skills," Chavis said. "He had cover skills. There was toughness about him. He didn't mind mixing it up. ... He has a great knack for being able to pressure the quarterback and time things up. It's just natural for him."
Chavis unleashed Mathieu on blitzes, which paid immediate dividends. As a freshman, Mathieu forced five fumbles, recovered three fumbles and had 4 1/2 sacks to go with a pair of interceptions.
Mathieu stepped into Peterson's old starting spot this season and made a splash on opening weekend against Oregon, with a strip and recovery for a touchdown while he was on punt coverage.
A couple weeks later at West Virginia, Mathieu anticipated a screen pass, which he deflected to himself and nearly returned it to end zone, setting up a touchdown.
The following week, he stormed into Kentucky's backfield, swatted the ball away from quarterback Maxwell Smith, then scooped it up and ran for a touchdown.
By then, most football fans knew who Mathieu was, even if they weren't quite sure how to pronounce his first name (TY-ruhn), and they also knew him as the Honey Badger.
Talk of his Heisman candidacy cooled, however, when he was suspended one game in October, against Auburn, for failing a school-administered drug test.
"I definitely thought my suspension took me out of the (Heisman) conversation for a while," Mathieu said. "But I'm surrounded by such great support at LSU, between my coaches and my teammates. I was able to just keep focused and stay the course and everything came to life toward the end of the season."
The late-season highlights included a 92-yard punt return against Arkansas and two spectacular, weaving and tackle-slipping returns in the Southeastern Conference title game against Georgia.
One of his returns against the Bulldogs went 62 yards for a touchdown, and might not have been his most impressive runback. He nearly took another return all the way back, using several changes of direction and a scintillating studder-step to avoid eight Georgia players who tried to bring him down before he was finally tripped up at the Georgia 17.
Mathieu also recovered a fumble in the SEC title game, which like his other two big plays in the game, led to a touchdown.
It was his fifth fumble recovery of the season, to go with six forced fumbles, two interceptions, 1 1/2 sacks, 6 1/2 tackles for losses and a team-leading 70 total tackles.
Chavis said he was proud of the way Mathieu responded to his personal bout with mid-season adversity.
"We look at athletes and look at the accolades, and then say, 'But,'" Chavis said. "We all have 'buts' in our life. It's a matter of growing and maturing from them and he's done a great job with that. ... Athletes are held to a higher standard. He understands that now and I think he enjoys that responsibility."
Mathieu might not among the favorites to win the award this year and even talks as if this weekend's visit to the Big Apple was somehow meant to give him a taste of what he might accomplish next year. After all, Mathieu is only a sophomore and plans to return to LSU for his junior season in 2012.
"I'm going to enjoy this experience," Mathieu said, "and hopefully it won't be my last time being a finalist for the Heisman Trophy."