All the work Tyrann Mathieu had put into one of his biggest weakness, covering receivers one-on-one, had gotten quarterback Zach Mettenberger’s attention.
"He made huge strides in being able to be a lock-down cover corner. That was a big thing he wanted to work on this offseason," Mettenberger said, then added, "We got to look to the young guys to make plays now."
On Saturday, LSU scrimmaged without Mathieu, a 2011 Heisman Trophy finalist who was kicked off the team Friday for what was reportedly the latest of several failed drug tests since his arrival on campus in 2010.
With Tharold Simon, LSU’s most experienced pass defender, lined up at one cornerback slot, Mettenberger said he didn’t have to be told to throw in the direction of freshman cornerback Jalen Mills, who took most of the snaps Mathieu would have had with the first-team defense.
"We’re going to pick on those young guys … and see how they handle the pressure," Mettenberger said. "Mills has had a great camp so far. He’s got a lot of talent. … I’m looking for big things from him."
As for Mathieu, he’s looking for another place to play this season. He already has visited McNeese State, an FCS school in Lake Charles, La., about a 3½ hour drive west on Interstate 10 from his native New Orleans.
Mathieu’s departure left LSU with major voids to fill both on defense and special teams. Nicknamed the Honey Badger because of his relatively small stature (5-foot-9, 175 pounds), ferocious play and streak of blond hair, Mathieu had a knack for causing turnovers as a blitzer and making tacklers miss as a punt returner.
LSU players, including Mettenberger and veteran offensive lineman Josh Dworaczyk, agreed it would be pointless to deny how good Mathieu was and how much it hurts to lose him as a playmaker and a teammate. At the same time, they stressed that great teams must be able to overcome the loss of top players.
"I watched him come a long way, so losing him is going to hurt," Dworaczyk, a sixth-year senior, said of Mathieu. "We all took it upon (ourselves) as the leadership of this team to really turn to the back of the (team meeting) room and look at the younger guys and say, `All right, who’s going to step up? Who’s going to be the next guy that’s going to fill in this position?’
"We have things to do this year," Dworaczyk continued. "Something we always do here at LSU is, through adversity, we continue to move forward."
In meetings involving both the full team and those broken down into position groups Friday evening, veteran leaders spent a good half hour or so leading discussions about the "life lessons" to be learned from Mathieu’s departure and the importance of responding with even greater purpose as the Sept. 1 season opener against North Texas approaches.
Dworaczyk said the Tigers also recognize how important the rest of the team was in Mathieu’s success.
"All those great (punt) returns that he had, he made a lot of special moves, but there was also 10 other guys out there throwing blocks."
LSU was ranked No. 1 nationally in the coaches poll before Mathieu’s dismissal. The AP Top 25 Poll comes out Aug. 18.
"We’re going to miss him a lot," Mettenberger said of Mathieu, "But we’ve got to handle this adversity because this team is not a bad team even though we lost one of our best players. … We have the same goals and we’re going to look to achieve all of them."
Mettenberger said LSU players take their commitment to one another seriously, and that "a little bit of all of us feel somewhat responsible" for Mathieu’s inability to remain on the team.
"But at the same time, I don’t know if I could have been a 19-year-old kid and be known nationwide as the Honey Badger," Mettenberger said. "That’s a lot of pressure. Hopefully he can learn from his mistakes and move forward."
Meanwhile, Miles said LSU has two leading candidate to replace Mathieu at cornerback, Mills and redshirt freshman Jalen Collins. Sophomore Odell Beckham is the leading candidate to return punts.
While Saturday’s scrimmage was closed to media, Miles said Mettenberger was 15 of 30 for 190 yards, including touchdown passes of 55 and 31 yards. He also was intercepted once, by Simon.
Afterward, LSU defensive end Barkevious Mingo sounded confident that LSU’s defense will continue to be among the more dominant in the nation even without Mathieu’s mayhem-causing blitzes and instinctive big plays.
"We’re deep with talent," Mingo said, "So we can easily do it."