TEMPE, Ariz. — Tyrann Mathieu may have a hard time controlling his emotions when he returns to New Orleans this weekend for the Cardinals’ game against the Saints. But in coach Bruce Arians’ opinion, that shouldn’t impact Mathieu’s play.
“He’s amped every day in practice, so I don’t worry about him getting too over-amped,” Arians said. “He’s at the ceiling all the time.”
There is a whole lot to be amped about when Mathieu comes home. He starred at LSU for two seasons, earning the Honey Badger nickname, winning the Bednarik Award as the nation’s best defender in 2011 and being named a Heisman Trophy finalist.
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When asked on a conference call Wednesday how familiar he was with Mathieu, Saints quarterback Drew Brees almost sounded insulted.
“The Honey Badger? Are you kidding me?” he said. “That was all anybody wanted to talk about around here. He was as exciting a college player as there was, so I’m very familiar with him and his abilities.”
Unfortunately for Mathieu, his off-field exploits stole the spotlight from his football accomplishments last year. He was kicked off LSU’s team a little over a year ago for violating school and team rules associated with multiple failed drugs tests for marijuana. He hadn’t played competitive football since until he took the field for the Cardinals this season.
To say that he feels apprehensive going back to the place where he built two competing reputations would be an understatement, which is why Mathieu wants so badly to start Sunday’s game off with a bang.
“Hopefully, if I make a play, the crowd gets behind me,” said Mathieu, sounding almost childlike in his desire for affirmation and approval. “I have a chance to play in front of my hometown, but I also have a chance to get everybody back on my side. Those same people, when all those negative things happened, said all those negative things about me.
“Obviously, I’m a popular figure being from New Orleans, and a bunch of kids look up to me. So you want to do the right things and you want everybody to support you.”
When the Cardinals selected Mathieu in the third round of April’s draft, he was holding a draft party at Happy’s Irish Pub in the shadow of the Superdome. He got a call from team president Michael Bidwill while he was out on the balcony.
“I was just standing out on the balcony thinking about what my life could be,” Mathieu said. “It was so humbling getting that call. Waiting until the third round said a lot about what I’ve been through, but it said more about where I was headed.”
You never know how a player will respond as time passes, NFL riches pile up and past transgressions fade from memory. But Arians, GM Steve Keim and teammate Patrick Peterson have kept close tabs on Mathieu. All are convinced he has matured enough for the worries to subside.
“I’m to the point where I don’t have to worry about him at all,” Peterson said. “We want to keep hounding the young man and continue to put pressure on him, but he’s comfortable. I think he understands what we expect out of him, and he’s growing accordingly.”
Arians isn’t concerned about what will happen this weekend when all the emotions come flooding back in for Mathieu.
“We’ve talked to him about distractions,” said Arians, noting the Cards won’t have time to do much in New Orleans before the game or after, when they leave to practice in Bradenton, Fla., for the game against the Buccaneers the following week. “He’s basically going to play the football game and wave to everybody at the game.”
At least Mathieu won’t have the usual distraction of rampant ticket requests players normally receive when they return to their hometown to play.
“I changed my number, so at this moment I don’t have any,” Mathieu said, laughing.
Mathieu admits that he has a little unfinished business at the Superdome. The last time he played there, or in any game before this season, LSU lost the BCS national championship game to Alabama, 21-0.
“You want to be a champion on every level, so it was unfortunate we weren’t able to pull the game out,” he said. “But honestly, it’s in the back of my mind now, because I’ve got bigger things to worry about.
“It’s definitely a blessing to be playing football again. I’m speechless and I’m grateful. I know most of the fans there are Saints fans, but I hope they’re Tyrann Mathieu fans, too.”