That was especially important last season when Claiborne stepped into the LSU starting lineup for the first time at the cornerback spot opposite the Tigers’ All-American.
But those lessons weren’t limited to defensive drills.
Claiborne, a former quarterback/receiver/safety – really whatever his coaches needed him to do – at Fair Park High in Shreveport, attentively watched just how much Peterson impacted games as a return man and took mental notes.
With Peterson gone to the NFL, his void on defense is sizable. Filling his shoes on special teams might be even more important and difficult, though.
That’s where Claiborne and his secondary running mate Tyrann Mathieu enter the picture.
Claiborne will take over on kickoff returns, a role Peterson turned into a huge advantage for LSU. He averaged an SEC-best 29.1 yards a return, and carved out at least 30 yards eight times – once every four times he got the ball in that position.
“I studied what Pat did and tried to mold my return game off him,” said Claiborne, who had returns of 33 and 24 yards when he spelled Peterson. “He had great vision and speed once he saw that hole. That’s what I need to do. I am trying to give us that big play.”
As big as Peterson was on kickoffs, the danger he poised on punt returns was even more dramatic.
On 26 punt-return attempts, Peterson produced 16.1 yards per return to lead the SEC and he was the only player in the league to ramble for a pair of special-teams touchdowns.
Now Mathieu gets his chance in that facet of the game.
“That’s something I can’t wait to go out there and do,” Mathieu said. “I’m very good at making things happen in the open field and that’s what punt returns are all about. I can’t wait to get that ball in my hands.”
Special teams have always been an important element of the game to LSU coach Les Miles, particularly the last two seasons when the Tigers’ offense sputtered and coughed more than producing big plays.
Every yard the Tigers could churn out on special teams was one less that the offense had to worry about.
This season, under a new coordinator with Thomas McGaughey and his 10 years of NFL coaching experience, LSU’s return games will again be counted on for good field position to take some pressure off the offense.
“We like what we feel like we can get from our return guys,” Miles said.
“In Mathieu and Claiborne, I think we have two guys who have a chance to be as good as our best.”
In case that doesn’t pan out, or if either of the starting cornerbacks gets dinged up, there won’t be a shortage of candidates to line up as kick and punt returners.
Junior receiver Rueben Randle has dabbled as a punt returner the last few seasons and would be a logical alternative because of his soft and safe hands.
Speedy senior Ron Brooks also has experience as a kickoff returner – he’s returned 20 kicks the last two seasons for a 20.7-yard average with long bolts of 41 and 50 yards.
“We have a lot of guys who can step in there and make plays,” Mathieu said. “I want to be the guy who does that for us, but if I’m not, we have other guys who can.”
Kick and punt returners at a glance