GLENDALE, Ariz. – Tyrann Mathieu is an attention magnet.
It was true for the teams that game-planned for him in college, it’s true for the media who cover his every step on the field — and misstep off it — and it’s true for the fans who hunger for more news, notes and knowledge about the Honey Badger.
Apparently, it’s even true for teammates like Darnell Dockett, who treated the Cardinals’ rookie defensive back to a special form of hazing recently when he shaved off Mathieu’s left eyebrow while leaving a sort of signature in Mathieu’s scalp that forced the former LSU standout to shave his head as well.
“It’s tough right now,” said an embarrassed Mathieu while facing the media with his new look on Sunday. “Long story short, a couple veterans took advantage of me. The deal going into it was they’d leave the Mohawk, but once I sat down, all the rules were out the window.”
The same could apply to Mathieu on the field this season. He’s a rookie, which normally means a steep learning curve before he can make a significant impact. He also hasn’t played football since the BCS title game against Alabama on Jan. 9, 2012, the product of being kicked off the team at LSU. Although he played some safety in college and will still play cornerback in nickel situations for the Cardinals, Mathieu is essentially switching from that position to free safety as he takes the quantum leap to the NFL.
Despite all those challenges, Mathieu has been a force in training camp, and that carried into the team’s first preseason game Friday in Green Bay when he separated the tight end from a ball, posted a sack while coming on a blitz and nearly broke a punt return.
“He had a very productive day,” said coach Bruce Arians, not sounding the least bit surprised. “He does it every day in practice. He’s caused at least two turnovers the last five practices. That’s going to carry over right to the games.”
Mathieu admitted to a case of nerves as he rode the team bus to the game Friday.
“But after that first kickoff, everything sort of comes back,” he said. “I think I did pretty good but there’s always room for improvement. I didn’t think I busted any coverages but I definitely would have wanted to make some more plays.”
Mathieu has been under the microscope from the time he arrived in the Valley, and unless he flames out, that figures to continue. But Arians doesn’t believe that poses any potential problems, even if the franchise and fans are holding their breath while waiting to see if Mathieu can walk the straight and narrow after multiple failed drug tests and an arrest while an LSU student.
“He was a high-profile guy coming out of college, then being suspended for the year …” Arians said. “He’s trying to make a second go of it, and he’s doing extremely well with that. I’m pulling for him. I don’t think he can get enough attention.”
Mathieu said that after his well publicized trials, the attention he’s garnering has turned positive again as he shows off his ability on the field.
“I think a lot of people have kind of jumped back on the bandwagon,” he said. “Everybody’s starting to root for me which is definitely encouraging for me.”
Whether the attention becomes a distraction remains to be seen, but Mathieu is certainly used to it from his days at LSU in the pressure cooker of the SEC.
“The expectations can never amount to mine,” said Mathieu, who will start at free safety Saturday against the Cowboys with Rashad Johnson injured. “I want to play a big role. Everybody always has something to say, whether it’s good or bad. I just leave it at that and do what I do best, which is play football.”
Mathieu has a lofty goal in mind.
“To be the best player on the team,” he said.
But for the immediate future, he is focused on more mundane daily tasks, learning three positions — free safety, nickel corner and return man — and listening to the counsel of good friend Patrick Peterson.
“I’m not a starter, so I’m still motivated,” Mathieu said. “I’ve still got a long way to go.”
Nobody is certain how long it will take for him to become a starter – or if it will happen at all — but at least one form of visible progress should materialize quickly.
“I’ve tried to put a Band-Aid over my eyebrow. That doesn’t work. I’ve tried to wear my hat low; can’t see where I’m going,” Mathieu said. “Hopefully, in the next week, my eyebrow will come back and I can just be myself again.”