What does LSU do with without Honey Badger?

Tyrann Mathieu was a game-changer for LSU last season. The

definition of a ball hawk, the Honey Badger turned games in the

Tigers’ favor with an uncanny ability to make big plays when they

were needed most.

Now that Mathieu, an All-American cornerback and Heisman Trophy

finalist, has been kicked off the team, what does it mean for LSU’s

national championship hopes?

Let’s answer some questions:

WHO REPLACES HONEY BADGER?

Like Mardi Gras beads on Bourbon Street, it’s not hard to find a

blue chip cornerback at LSU. Still, the Tigers don’t have as much

depth at the position as they had last season.

One of two Jalens will likely take Mathieu’s spot opposite

Tharold Simon as the starter in the secondary. Redshirt freshman

Jalen Collins is a big corner at 6-foot-2 and 195 pounds.

Rivals.com rated him a four-star prospect out of Olive Branch

(Miss.) High School. He won LSU’s most improved player award after

spring practice.

Freshman Jalen Mills is only a few months removed from high

school in DeSoto, Texas, but has impressed coaches in the

preseason.

YEAH, BUT CAN ANYBODY REALLY REPLACE MATHIEU?

Probably not. Mathieu wasn’t a lockdown corner in the mold of

former teammates Morris Claiborne and Patrick Peterson. Versatility

was his trademark skill.

Often he was listed as the nickel back and LSU defensive

coordinator John Chavis lined him up all over the field. One down

Mathieu was a corner. One down he was a safety. One down he was –

all 5-9 and 175 pounds of him – a linebacker.

Finding a player who can do all that as effectively as Mathieu

will be difficult.

WHAT ABOUT ALL THOSE TURNOVERS?

Mathieu forced 11 fumbles in two seasons at LSU, setting a

school record and tying an SEC record. It will be almost impossible

for another player to replicate that production. Then again, the

nature of turnovers being a bit fluky, it would have been

unrealistic for LSU to expect Mathieu to keep up that pace.

AND THE PUNT RETURNS?

Mathieu averaged 15.6 yards per return last year and scored two

touchdowns. The touchdowns came against Arkansas and Georgia and

both happened when LSU was trailing.

Mathieu returned 27 punts last year. Would he have gotten that

many opportunities this year with teams more leery of him bringing

one back? That’s hard to say. LSU’s defense forces a lot of punts,

but it’s a good guess that a lot of them were going to be angled

toward the sidelines this year.

Coach Les Miles mentioned receiver Odell Beckham as a possible

replacement. The Tigers have a bevy of fast, agile players. Maybe

one of them will turn out to be as elusive as Mathieu. Maybe

not.

CAN LSU WIN A NATIONAL TITLE WIHOUT MATHIEU?

Absolutely. As talented as Mathieu is, he is not irreplaceable.

Not for a team such as LSU.

LSU has NFL prospects all over the field. The Tigers’ defensive

line is arguably the best in the country. Maybe what they lose in

the secondary, they make up for with ends Sam Montgomery and

Barkevious Mingo rushing the passer.

With strong-armed quarterback Zach Mettenberger leading the

offense this season, maybe LSU won’t need to score as many points

off turnovers and special teams as it did last year.

The Tigers also play an easier nonconference schedule

(Washington at Tiger Stadium is the only real test), and get

Alabama at home.

BUT LOSING HIM DOES HURT, RIGHT?

Of course. The Honey Badger was a playmaker for LSU, and a few

plays can be the difference between playing for a national

championship or not – just ask Oklahoma State.

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Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP