Tyrann Mathieu is gone. Booted for the nebulous "team rules" violation, the Honey Badger will never play for LSU again and will take with him tons of bad knock off t-shirts and 11 forced fumbles in 2 seasons, not to mention a vicious return game and a highlight reel that is the textbook definition of "ball hawk". Is he a bigger loss in the return game or in the defense?
I'm going to go with defense. He was a dynamic punt returner by the end of last season, but Odell Beckham Jr. filled in well a couple of times, and nearly put LSU in position to win the first Bama game with a late punt return that was called back. But you don't replace a playmaker like this on defense. I still stand by what I said in the DB preview about him re: coverage versus his overall playmaking ability, but make no mistake, LSU just lost its best blitzing defender.
Additionally, the experience level in the secondary takes another big hit as well. Simon and the safeties will be fine, but Jalen Collins just got thrust into the starting lineup, and the defense will have to reconfigure itself slightly from last year.
LSU lives and dies by its special teams play (one of the reasons the team lost in the rematch was that it never got that big special team play that always seemed to happen), and Matthieu was a special player on returns. He just had that eerie knack for finding space and making big plays. Sure, we will find another guy, like Beckham, who can make big returns, but I don't think the team will find that unique bouillabaisse of big play ability.
Still, it's got to be defense. LSU was already faced with some depth problems with the loss of Jenkins on top of the toll the draft took on the depth chart. Now, Miles is looking at a secondary with only one corner with any significant experience. It's going to be trial by fire for the underclassmen, and the coaches are just going to have to hope they have another stud on the roster. Which isn't THAT unlikely.
Let's also take a moment to reflect that it's not like the secondary has no talent. Eric Reid is an incredible football player and Tharold Simon is ready to be the next great cover corner. Most teams that return two players of that caliber wouldn't consider the secondary a weakness. That's how spoiled we are, as fans. The secondary now goes from "ridiculously awesome" to "pretty good". However, coupled with the talented yet unproven linebackers, and this defense no longer looks like quite the rock. It looks like a talented group that lacks sure things behind its defensive line.
The cornerback depth chart is now Simon and four freshmen.
Which is a good enough segway into...What do we do replacing him in certain sets like the Mustang package? And does not having him effect what we do on defense a lot or do we just keep rolling and depend on someone to step up?
If you look back at John Chavis' first year, LSU stayed in its base defense in a lot of nickel situations, I believe because the Chief felt more comfortable keeping the linebackers on the field than the reserve corners. It's not that crazy when you think about it with a group like Harry Coleman, Kelvin Sheppard, Perry Riley and Jacob Cutrera (three are still in the NFL). That could be one alternative, if the younger linebackers step up faster than the younger corners do.
Micah Eugene was supposedly set to take over the dime spot, so I don't imagine that changes. But whomever settles in at nickel, whether it is Dwayne Thomas, Jalen Mills or Derrick Raymond, is bound to be some kind of step back from Mathieu, even in the best of situations. Really, there's no two-ways about it: younger players are going to have to step up, and how they do that will define just how we miss No. 7.
The schedule is a bit of a help here, with the exception of the Washington game. The pass-rush is really going to have to step up when Keith Price and Austin Seferian-Jenkins come to town.
I feel more confident in our young linebackers than our young corners, mainly because Chavis is the godfather of linebacker development. I don't think we'll see quite so much nickel, especially since our linebackers are as fast as most safeties anyway.
But honestly, the package doesn't matter that much. There's lots of talent on hand, and I have full confidence Chavis knows how to get the most talented people on the field. All this does is speed up the timetable, but young guys were going to have to step up anyway. And the guys who really will be relied on more heavily is our defensive line, which is ridiculously stacked this season. Those guys now have to create pressure to ease the burden on the younger guys' learning curves.
One more question... how do you feel about him getting kicked off the team?
I hate to see it happen -- there's no two ways about it, Mathieu was a fun player to watch. Like Paul said in his post last month, you love the guy if he's on your team and you hate him if he's on the other team. But at the same time, I take Miles' word for it that this was unavoidable, and I can appreciate that he wouldn't put one player, no matter how good, above the team.
Mathieu had a lot of ability, and a chance to make a much better life for himself, but he's throwing that away and I hope that maybe this is a wake-up call.
I'll miss Mathieu because he is such a unique player. I like that he's a little unhinged and that he talks smack on Twitter. I like that he doesn't have a position. I like that he makes these huge plays and then messes up the little details. Mathieu was the perfect player for Les Miles because he just projected chaos. And one of the things that's going to be sad is that he's going to be more cautious, more traditional, and less risk taking. He might still find his way to the NFL, and I hope he does, but he will almost certainly be less fun. Some PR flak is going to get a hold of him and his twitter feed will become infinitely less interesting.
LSU is going to miss him for sure. but I also think college football is a little poorer now. He is a player without comparison, and when he comes back, he'll be scrubbed of all of his rough edges and saying all of the right things. Surely, there will be immensely talented players again. Stars come and go in college football, such is the nature of the game. But there will only ever be one Honey Badger.
He wasn't here long enough, and now he's gone forever.