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.”