Dismissed player leaves void on defense, special teams
A drippy, sunless gray sky greeted the news Friday that Tyrann Mathieu had been dismissed from the LSU football team for unspecified violations.
As a dramatic backdrop, it seemed to fit the mood of a Tiger nation suddenly plunged into a cloud of anxiety that the loss of one of their team’s top stars will prove a mortal blow to LSU’s national championship hopes.
Overwhelming gloom and doom is to be expected at times like this, but unfounded. The Tigers didn’t get to be preseason No. 1 in the USA Today coaches’ poll strictly on the strength of Mathieu’s mercurial talents alone.
Whether LSU will be No. 1 in The Associated Press poll on Aug. 18 is another highly dubious matter.
There are still plenty of gifted players at the Tigers’ disposal, but clearly Mathieu leaves a void that impacts LSU on two critical fronts: the secondary and special teams.
Even assuming Mathieu would have played this season at something approaching a Heisman Trophy finalist/All-American level, the Tigers’ reserves were always going to be significantly inexperienced.
The depth chart in LSU’s secondary is populated with untested players, at least one of whom will now be called upon to be the starter. Though junior corner Tharold Simon and junior strong safety Craig Loston are both seasoned, there is no escaping the fact that the only true returning starter is junior free safety Eric Reid.
The most likely candidate to succeed Mathieu appears to be redshirt freshman Jalen Collins (6-foot-1, 184) from Olive Branch, Miss., who is listed as the prime backup to Tharold Simon at the other cornerback spot as well. Collins was recipient of the team’s “Most Improved” award at the end of spring practice, an upward progression that must continue as the regular season approaches.
Behind Collins is true freshman Jalen Mills (6-0, 180), a native of DeSoto, Texas, both of whom saw time early in preseason camp with LSU’s veteran group. Another true freshman, Dwayne Thomas (6-1, 170) from O. Perry Walker in New Orleans, is also listed as a Simon backup, and true freshman Derrick Raymond (6-2, 175) from East Jefferson now also has a chance to factor into the mix.
Mathieu, of course, wasn’t only a cornerback. He also excelled at nickel back in LSU’s five defensive back formations — many would say nickel was his better position. Redshirt freshman safety Micah Eugene (5-11, 194) now appears to be the most likely candidate when LSU goes with a five defensive back alignment, along with sophomore Ronald Martin (6-1, 199).
All have a fairly significant size advantage on Mathieu (5-9, 175), and the argument can be made that in time one or more of LSU’s currently untested young defensive backs can develop into a better every-down cornerback than Mathieu ever was.
Mathieu’s flaws as a pure cornerback were lost in the glare of the many big plays he made. Mathieu forced six fumbles, had two interceptions and scored two defensive touchdowns last season, game-defining moments that often redirected the arc of the games in which he played. It is those kinds contributions that none of Mathieu’s potential replacements can fairly be expected to approach, much less replicate.
Mathieu’s loss as a big-play artist will also be felt in LSU’s punt return game. He averaged an exceptional 15.6 yards per return last season, scoring touchdowns against Arkansas and Georgia in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game that offset what at the time were moribund showings by the Tigers’ offense.
LSU was already likely to count on sophomore Odell Beckham Jr. as one of its top two kickoff returners along with senior Russell Shepard. Friday, LSU coach Les Miles pierced through his disappointment at having to send Mathieu packing to say that Beckham is a strong possibility to become the punt returner.
Slightly built like Mathieu, but speedier, Beckham (5-11, 183) could see his candidacy complicated by the fact he is likely to be counted on to be LSU’s top receiver. Another possibility is sophomore Jarvis Landry, who had one return for 31 yards last season (Beckham had nine for 77).