The Southeastern Conference lost one of its marquee players on Friday morning when LSU coach Les Miles dismissed Tyrann Mathieu from the Tigers football team for a violation of team policy.
Mathieu, rated the top defensive back in the nation by Lindy’s and the winner of the Bednarik Award in 2011, was a big-play specialist on an LSU defense that was one of the best in the country last season and was expected to be again this season.
So what now for Mathieu? And, in particular, how will his loss effect LSU?
Well, Mathieu will eventually play again. McNesse State is a possibility, as are other FCS schools. But LSU’s defense will feel the loss of the electrifying playmaker.
The 5-foot-9, 175-pound junior All-American from New Orleans, scored four touchdowns — two on punt returns and two on fumble returns — intercepted two passes, caused six fumbles and recovered four as LSU rolled to a perfect 13-0 regular season record before losing the BCS National Championship Game to Alabama.
Nicknamed “Honey Badger” for his ferocious play on the field and his streaks of blond hair, he quickly captured the imagination of the football nation last season. When LSU trailed Arkansas 14-7 Mathieu returned a punt 92 yards for a score that keyed the LSU win. In the SEC Championship Game, the Tigers were down 10-0 to Georgia when Mathieu kick-started the LSU 42-10 win with a 62-yard punt return for a score.
“He gave us a lot of examples that we can learn from and I think that he’s a quality, quality guy who had a behavior issue and that’s it,” Miles said. “Certainly the overview of his time with us is positive. This is a very difficult day for our team. We lose a quality person, teammate and contributor to the program. We have a simple policy here and the consequences are pretty well spelled out. We have a standard that our players are held to and when that standard is not met, there are consequences.
“We extended ourselves to the full length of the policy.”
As for Mathieu, Miles said he did not expect the junior to stay in school but looked for him to transfer where he can play football. Transferring to an FCS school would allow him to play immediately while a transfer to another FBS school would mean having to sit out this year.
In two seasons, Mathieu had 133 tackles and four interceptions. He also forced 11 fumbles, which ranks first in LSU history and seventh in NCAA history, and he recovered eight fumbles.
“It’s hard because we all love Tyrann. We will do what we can as coaches, teammates, and friends to get him on a path where he can have success. We are going to miss the guy,” the coach said. “But just like an injury, a football team has got to go on; fill the void. I call on the leadership of this team to understand. These things happen. We’ve got to go on. I think they certainly understand it and they are ready to take positive steps.
“Again, we will miss him but we have to go on.”
And that question reverberated around the SEC Friday as the news of Mathieu’s dismissal became known. What does this mean for LSU, Lindy’s preseason No. 1 pick, and in particular for the John Chavis’ Tiger defense?
Mathieu is a big loss, but not one that can not be overcome because there is still plenty of talent in Baton Rouge. Although now LSU only returns four starters on defense, the rest of the players who were backups last season got plenty of playing time in winning situations. In fact, many considered cornerback Morris Claiborne a better player, but there is no question that Mathieu probably made as many game-changing plays the last two years as any defensive back in the country.
That leaves Eric Reid, a 6-2, 208-pound junior, as the only returning starter in the Tigers secondary. Reid had 76 tackles, 10 pass breakups and 12 passes defended. Linebacker Kevin Minter, defensive end Sam Montgomery and tackle Bennie Logan are the remaining starters back. But again the backups logged significant playing time last year. Junior end Barkevious Mingo had eight sacks and 15 tackles for loss but is not considered a returning starter.
Chavis is known as a master defensive coordinator and he still has enough cards to play to keep LSU’s defense among the best in the SEC and in contention for conference and national honors.
“We have good players,” Miles said. “Eric Reid and Tharold Simon and the player that is no longer in this room all played significant roles in a Cotton Bowl victory. Odell Beckham will be a very talented punt returner and I think we will be good at kick returner as well.”
This is the second consecutive August that Miles has had to call a press conference to deal with disciplinary action as the Tigers tried to prepare for a championship run.
“The press conferences are a characteristic of the issue,” he said. “This is bad news for one guy and the adjustment that needs to be made by the players.”