Everyone seems to have a story about the first time they watched 5-foot-9, 180-pound Tyrann Mathieu work a receiver in person.
For me, it was an April 2009 Scout Combine in New Orleans – Mathieu’s backyard. The event was stacked with Louisiana names, which also happened to be some of the best in the country at the time.
Trovon Reed represented the elite from the 2010 class, while the 2011 group was made up of the likes of La’el Collins, Anthony Johnson, Jarvis Landry, Greg Robinson and Floyd Raven.
When Reed and Landry lined up to catch passes during the one-on-one drills, St. Augustine rising senior Tyrann Mathieu stepped in on the opposite side of the line. And each time, Mathieu went stride-for-stride.
As his recruitment played out over the next two seasons, Mathieu’s talents became well known around the Bayou State. Outside of Louisiana, coaches didn’t seem to be turning their heads.
LSU, Tulane and Louisiana-Monroe all came through the St. Augustine hallways with scholarship papers in hand, but the out-of-state suitors were down to the likes of Florida International and Miami – of Ohio.
Tennessee was the only other SEC program to show interest, and even that had a backstory. The coach recruiting Mathieu to Knoxville was Frank Wilson, a native of New Orleans and graduate of St. Augustine. After taking a job at LSU, Wilson turned to recruiting Mathieu to Baton Rouge.
When he reported to LSU’s campus for summer workouts this past June his Tiger teammates got their first look, and once more, the performance from the undersized and ultra-aggressive defensive back was memorable for all involved.
“I knew the kid was special the minute he stepped out onto the practice field that day,” said Patrick Peterson, LSU’s current name to know at cornerback. “I think he had three interceptions in the very first session. He was just so quick and physical; it had everyone on both sides of the ball doing a double-take.”
Often hesitant to mention progress from his incoming signees, Miles seemed to have loose lips when it came to Mathieu. Time and again, post-practice media sessions turned to talks about how quickly the freshman cornerback was progressing in defensive coordinator John Chavis’ system.
When the opening game against North Carolina arrived, word had spread that Mathieu’s rise translated into a spot as the third cornerback, where he lined up behind Peterson.
How much action could a true freshman really get when he’s stacked up behind arguably the best cornerback in college football? Given the talent of Mathieu coupled with Peterson’s new role as a return man on special teams, a lot.
In his first college game, Mathieu turned time off the bench into a nine-tackle outing, good for second-best on the team. His 1.5 sacks for a combined loss of 21 yards were the most from any LSU player. His shining moment: a forced fumble after he blindsided T.J. Yates on a fourth-down cornerback blitz.
“Freshmen don’t just step up and make plays like that, not normal ones at least,” said junior Brandon Taylor, a second year starter at safety. “Tyrann plays like he’s been in this program for a few years.”
Through three games, Mathieu is fourth on the team with 16 total tackles. Thanks to a Mississippi State game in which Dime package blitz calls resulted in Mathieu repeatedly putting a helmet into the chest of both Bulldogs quarterbacks, his mark for pass breakups (2), pass deflections (2) and forced fumbles (2) are all good for best on the team.
“He looks forward to making the big play,” Miles said. “Don’t get me wrong; he has things that he is going to get better at. We’re going to test him, and he’s going to work through and progress, but he starts with a lot of understanding of football.”
With three tackles last weekend on special teams alone, Mathieu is the case-in-point for Miles’ argument to insert more of his freshmen into the mix – especially when, like Mathieu, they prove to be the team’s most talented athletes.
As for his status on the cornerback depth chart, the third defensive back role is secured. The direction from here: up.
“Those guys that interpret football like he does, with speed and aggressiveness, he’s going to play for a long time,” Miles said. “We’ll look forward to putting him on the field.”