Mathieu, Claiborne combine to lead LSU — or ’DB U’
Friday, January 6, 2012
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Morris Claiborne came to LSU to play wide receiver. Tyrann Mathieu just wanted a chance to play.
Together they form one of the best defensive backfields in college football.
Claiborne has flourished into a Thorpe Award winner and likely top-10 draft pick after finally moving to the other side of the ball, while the pint-sized Mathieu has emerged as one of the game’s most dynamic playmakers, winning the Bednarik Award and earning an invitation to the Heisman Trophy ceremony.
They’re also a big reason LSU is playing for another national title.
“Those guys can play football all the way around,” said Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron, whose job it will be to figure out a way of beating them in the BCS title game Monday night.
He didn’t fare so well against “MoMo” and the “Honey Badger” the last time they met.
The pair combined for eight tackles and an interception last November, holding McCarron to 199 yards passing in No. 1 LSU’s 9-6 overtime victory over second-ranked Alabama.
Claiborne and Mathieu provide the energy — the pulse, if you will — for an aggressive, pin-the-ears-back defense that created 30 turnovers and ranked in the top five nationally in scoring defense, rush defense, pass efficiency defense and total defense during the season.
Along the way, they became the first set of teammates to lock down both spots on the AP’s All-America first team.
Nobody could have expected that when they arrived on LSU’s picturesque campus.
Growing up in Shreveport, Claiborne always knew he’d play for the Tigers one day, but he always envisioned scoring touchdowns rather than preventing them. He was a quarterback in high school and assumed he’d be a wide receiver at LSU, where his prototypical size and blazing speed cast him in the mold of former Tigers like Michael Clayton and Josh Reed.
“When I first got here, my mind was all offense. No defense,” he said with a Cheshire Cat-like smile. “I was like, ‘I’m not playing defense. I’m a receiver. That’s what I’m going to do.”’
It was during a 7-on-7 session one day in practice that cornerback Patrick Peterson — who was selected fifth overall in last season’s NFL draft — goaded him into playing defense. Claiborne wound up knocking the ball down with some textbook coverage, and remembers watching everyone’s jaws drop.
“The next day at practice,” he said, “I was playing corner.”
Les Miles and the LSU coaching staff knew they’d get Claiborne on the field somewhere. That wasn’t necessarily the case when they scouted Mathieu.
Despite being a standout at New Orleans’ St. Augustine High School he was still just 5-foot-9 — conventional wisdom says that’s too small to play every down in the rough-and-tumble SEC.
But the coaching staff decided to take a flier on Mathieu when they realized he had speed and instincts that are impossible to teach. Every time a big play was made, it seemed, Mathieu was in the vicinity, and that hasn’t changed a bit since he arrived at LSU.
He led the team with 70 tackles as a sophomore this season, despite missing a game after testing positive for synthetic marijuana. Mathieu also forced six fumbles, recovered five of them and picked off a pair of passes, while scoring four touchdowns on defense and special teams.
He also earned a nickname, “Honey Badger,” after a YouTube clip showing the tenacious, undersized beast taking whatever it wants.
“When you see the kids calling me Honey Badger, it became a part of me. It kind of grew on me,” Mathieu said Wednesday, his voice barely above a whisper. “I look at it like this: I see little kids and they’re in love with the Honey Badger, so I’ll be the Honey Badger for them.”
For the Tigers, too.
LSU has established a tradition of shutdown defensive backs, only twice in the past nine years failing to send one to the NFL. That includes a pair of first-round selections: Peterson last season and free safety LaRon Landry in 2007.
“A lot of people say when we lost Pat, those were some pretty big shoes to fill, and they are, but we just thrived on working,” Claiborne said. “Before he left, he had us working every day, and we didn’t stop because he left. We kept working.”
Claiborne and Mathieu aren’t the only ones with bright futures, either.
Sophomore safety Eric Reid made a leaping interception at the goal line in the first game against Alabama to save a touchdown, along with forcing a fumble and blocking a field goal. His running mate, senior safety Brandon Taylor, has made 32 career starts.
Together, LSU’s defensive backs have accounted for eight touchdowns — two more than opponents had passing against the Tigers all season. They grounded Oregon’s high-flying offense, slowed down the Crimson Tide in their first meeting and generally made life miserable for everyone else.
“They’re the real guys,” said Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain. “I mean, the defenses in this league, you know, are really, really good. And these guys are at the top of that heap.”
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