When Tyrann Mathieu was kicked off the LSU football team Aug. 10, the Tigers reacted the way teams are supposed to react when they lose a key player.
Whether it’s because of an injury or, in Mathieu’s case, a dismissal for violating team and university policy (believed to be failed drug tests), the next player has to step in and replace the missing player.
But Mathieu — a Heisman Trophy finalist as a sophomore last season — wasn’t just any player, and replacing him isn’t just a one-man job.
Mathieu was an All-America cornerback who also played nickelback, and a special teams whirling dervish, capable of making a scoring play as a punt cover guy, as he did against Oregon last season, or returning punts for touchdowns, as he did against Arkansas and Georgia.
In addition, he did all that with a confidence, swagger and lightning-quick ability to strike with a momentum-building play, which he also did against West Virginia, Kentucky and Florida.
“We lost a big part of our team, a special player,” cornerback Tharold Simon said. “That man was a very good player, but we just have to move on and do what we’ve got to do. I truly believe that our players are stepping up real good.”
When the Tigers open the season against North Texas on Saturday night, seven of them — perhaps even more — will be part of an ensemble cast that figuratively puts on No. 7, the jersey Mathieu wore during his highlight-filled season last year.
True freshman Jalen Mills edged out redshirt freshmen Jalen Collins for the challenge of lining up where Mathieu would have been most often — on the opposite side from Simon in the Tigers base defense — though Collins will also play plenty of corner, especially when Mills slides over to replace Mathieu at nickelback.
“I think Mills and Collins will both play a lot of football,” coach Les Miles said. “I think both guys can play. What I expect from them is to play just like we always play. Our corners play a very aggressive style, and they understand the checks and where the help is over the top with the safeties. We expect that they would play exactly the same way.”
Simon, who last season had the role Collins now has, became LSU’s most talented and most experienced corner with Mathieu’s departure. His expanded responsibility might well translate into less action, though, as opponents no doubt will zero in on the rookie corners.
“Once the game comes,” Simon said, “I’ll tell them this is my side, because I feel like I can hold my side down, and they know I can hold my side down.”
Free safety Eric Reid, who like Mathieu and Simon had an immediate impact as a true freshman two years ago, is now the most experienced and unquestioned leader of the defensive backs. He’ll lend a helping hand to Mills and Collins more often than to Simon, especially in the early going.
“They’re both obviously young,” Reid said of Mills and Collins. “But they’re both also very talented. We have confidence in them. They’re both going to be rotating. We’ve just got to get them some experience, so these first couple of games will be very important for them. Hopefully they start off fast and use the coaching that they’ve gotten.”
Mills, 6-foot, 185 pounds, is bigger than Mathieu, who was generously listed as 5-9. And Collins, 6-2, 195, is bigger than both of them. But Reid said Mills’ tenacity has stood out.
“He gets after it,” Reid said of Mills. “He likes to fight with receivers. As we call it: Get his hands on them. He’s very physical, so it’s a battle when he’s playing against a wide receiver. So the coaches like that, and that’s why he got the start.
“He’s confident in himself, but at the same time he wants to get better. He’s always looking for advice. After every play, he’s looking for somebody to tell him how he could have done better on that play. That’s an extremely important quality to have, especially as a young DB trying to grow up in this system.”
Strong safety Craig Loston said he sees “great things” in Mills. “He just has to come along,” Loston said. “And I’m pretty sure he’ll come along and Jalen Collins will come along and we’ll be fine.”
Reid said that as the opener has neared, the coaches have been stressing the importance of communication in the secondary, where Reid is the only returning starter. Three other key players from last season — cornerbacks Morris Claiborne and Ron Brooks and safety Brandon Taylor — are all in the NFL.
“As long as we’re on the same page, we’ll be OK,” Reid said. “We just have to communicate and make sure everybody has the calls and then just go out there and play football.”
In Mathieu’s absence, defensive end Sam Montgomery is the defense’s most loquacious and excitable player, as well as one of its best.
“You know when he makes a play, everybody gets excited,” said Reid, who added that defensive tackle Bennie Logan and middle linebacker Kevin Minter can also pick up slack as big playmakers.
“When they make a play, everybody is especially excited because they can hit,” Reid said. “They’re probably two of the hardest hitters on our defense. We look at them for that emotional confidence, and when they make a play, everybody gets riled up.”
Mathieu had a knack for riling the team up with his punt returns. His 92-yard punt return for a touchdown against Arkansas completed the Tigers’ rally from an early 14-0 deficit and sent them on their way to a 41-17 win.
His 62-yard punt return for a touchdown woke LSU up from a 10-0 start against Georgia and ignited a 42-10 thrashing in the Southeastern Conference title game.
Wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who averaged 8.6 yards on nine punt returns as Mathieu’s backup last season, begins the season as the No. 1 punt returner.
“Odell Beckham really appears to be a very talented returner for us,” Miles said.
Beckham was asked what he learned from watching Mathieu, who averaged 15.6 yards per return.
“With him you can’t learn much,” Beckham said. “With his natural ability and his playmaking ability, you just watch what he did and try and imitate it.”