Season preview: Cornerbacks

Tigers' loaded CB crew, with Morris Claiborne, Tyrann Mathieu and Tharold Simon as the centerpieces, could anchor a promising defense.

On a defense loaded with talent, it's hard to imagine the one unit that lost a first-round NFL draft pick could be the most loaded.

Hard or not, though, that seems to be the fact for LSU.

Yes, All-American Patrick Peterson is gone after two spectacular seasons as a dare-you-try cornerback for the Tigers.

And no, the teammates he left behind aren't quite at his level just yet.

But as a whole, the four veterans who will man the two corners and also serve as the nickel and dime backs are on the precipice of forming one of the best secondaries in the country.

In fact, the quartet of Morris Claiborne, Tyrann Mathieu, Tharold Simon and Ron Brooks might already be there.

"We have the potential to be really, really good," Claiborne said, his customary smile in place. "We're taking strides every day, but we have a lot of polishing to do. But you can see the potential and see us taking steps every day."

Mo Claiborne: Learned under fire last season and led Tigers with five INTs.
Claiborne is leading those steps after a breakthrough sophomore campaign when he stepped in opposite Peterson and was a key component to the SEC's best pass defense.

The Shreveport native snared a team-best five interceptions and broke up six other passes while also logging 37 tackles. More importantly, when opposing offenses took aim at his side of the field to steer clear of Peterson, Claiborne held his own.

That may change now that he's the most experienced cover corner of the group, but Claiborne said going through the experience of being targeted last season was as effective on-the-job training as he could've asked for.

"I wanted them to throw my way last year; it helped me get comfortable," Claiborne said. "I don't think it will be any different. I'm expecting people to throw at me."

Simon figures to get a full dose of that as well.

Built much like Peterson at 6-foot-3 and 187 pounds, Simon got a taste of SEC pass coverage late last season and showed he was ready with a pick and three pass breakups – his biggest moments coming when he clamped down on Alabama star Julio Jones as the Crimson Tide tried to launch a fourth-quarter rally.

"It just built my confidence up much more," Simon said of getting on the field late last year. "It was fun learning everything, and now I can go out there and experience how it's going to be. I learned a lot last year, and now I know I'm going have to step up for my team and do big things."

Whatever Simon does, he'll do so differently than most corners.

Tharold Simon: Gets chance to step in and replace Patrick Peterson
Because of his size and gangly build, Simon is deceptively good as a cover CB. Similar to a shot-blocker in basketball who lays in wait for an opponent to dare bring the ball into the lane, Simon patiently stays off a receiver waiting for a chance to uncoil.

"Tharold has those long arms and that gives him an advantage," Claiborne said. "He can get up in your face and still be 3 yards off you. It looks like the receiver is open and as soon as the ball comes, he's knocking it down."

If a foe does manage to get his hands on the ball, Simon isn't shy about exacting a toll.

Simon's size and knack for delivering a blow fit the mold of a safety – a common notion that he hears about on a regular basis.

"I'm probably the most physical corner we have along with Tyrann," Simon said. "Every day somebody asks me why I'm not playing safety. They say I'm too tall to be a corner, but I like where I'm at."

Mathieu can relate.

Though the 5-foot-9, 175-pound ball hawk is listed as a starting cornerback, his best spot is as the nickel back, a place where he can roam and hunt down the ball or who's carrying it.

Similarly to former LSU star Chad Jones, Mathieu is at his aggressive best when he can improvise as the play unfolds.

"I just want to be wherever the ball is so I can make a play to help my team," Mathieu said. "That's my job."

His knack for finding the ball was certainly a boon for LSU last season. Mathieu recorded 57 tackles as a non-starter – more than Claiborne or Peterson – led the Tigers with five forced fumbles and three recoveries and logged 4½ sacks.

Those skills are as much a reason as any why defensive coordinator John Chavis is likely to deploy a 4-2-5 scheme more often than not, an aberration for a coach who loves to make linebackers the focal point of his defenses.

Ron Brooks: Will see time as an extra DB
Chavis and Miles have both regularly commented during pre-season practice that getting Claiborne, Simon and Mathieu on the field together is a priority.

"We want as much speed on the field as we can get," Chavis said. "And those three give us that and the potential to make a lot of plays. We really like that combination."

Brooks adds a different wrinkle as well.

The fastest of the quartet and most experienced, Brooks was effective late last season whenever Chavis wanted extra DBs on the field with a pair of interceptions.

"If we do what we're supposed to do and we're in the right spots, it's going to be hard for defenses to throw the ball against us," Claiborne said. "We have a lot of guys who know what we need to do in pass coverage and when we're playing well, we can be pretty good."

Cornerbacks at a glance

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