Best Players of the Les Miles Era #3: Tyrann Mathieu

Streeter Lecka

The Best Players of the Les Miles Era series rolls on with Tyrann Mathieu checking in at number three overall.

Some myths are true.

When you talk about someone 5'9", 170 pounds, it's rare the term "best player on the field," is what follows. At least not in 2011.

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There are players that embody the prototypes. The Greek Gods of the world, standing mythically high, bronzed busts and granite shoulders. They are larger than life in every sense. They are LeBron James. They are Jadeveon Clowney. They are Jim Brown. They are Babe Ruth. They exceed every expectation. When you reach the point of saying, "yeah, but they couldn't do this," they do that very thing. They are the ones we try to apply logic and reason to, only to fail again and again.

But they aren't five foot nine. They aren't one hundred and seventy pounds. They are bigger and badder and better than their peers. The world, to them, is effortless. It's not that they don't try. It's not that they don't work hard. They do those things, too. It's that they are gifted in a way that you or I could never dream. And that's okay.

Then there's Tyrann Mathieu. A guy who grew up poor, who grew up with every reason to fail, yet never found reason to do so. He was small. He was, by every practical detail, a guy who should have just been a guy. Except, that he never was.

Some myths are true.

As a rising Senior in high school, Mathieu entered recruiting circles as a relatively unknown prospect. Sure, those who religiously followed the NOLA prep scene touted his abilities, but this fresh-faced kid, showed up in Knoxville, Tennessee, just one of many camp bodies, and proceeded to put on a clinic. Five star after five star challenged him, that June of 2009, yet none could compete. Who IS this 5'9", hyper-competitive kid? Are we really seeing what we are seeing? Quietly, the Vols extended an offer, hoping Mathieu would pounce at the D1 attention, hoping others wouldn't notice. He did not; they did not.

Just under two months later, LSU came calling. On July 21st, 2009, Mathieu verbally committed, never wavering, never looking back, never questioning his decision. For him, LSU was the dream. To him, the fact they didn't come calling first was just another chip on a shoulder now eroded away. "Doubt me? Pfffft."

He became an internet recruiting darling. Scout.com and ESPN rated him a 3-star prospect. Rivals gave him more credit, giving him four stars, but placed him at the bottom of their top 200, even though they acknowledged he had the best cover skills of any corner in his class. Still, to them, that made him only the 13th best CB that season. But LSU fans remained vigilant on message boards, insisting Mathieu was underrated. It's hardly an uncommon trope amongst the internet recruiting fanbase. Every team always signs some player that is truly great that the services just "missed." Most commonly, that player turns into a one-year type of starter and/or solid role player. But...

Some myths are true.

By August of 2010, Mathieu was asserting himself enough to factor into the two-deep. Yeah, that small kid from NOLA showed up on campus in the summer and made a case for playing time in short order. He would play in 2010, making himself known from game one vs. UNC, notching nine tackles, one and a half TFL, including a sack, and a forced fumble. "Dumb freshman luck," we said. Until he did it again. And again. And again. And again. It was weird in a way that made us think it probably wasn't real.

He finished with 57 tackles (4th on the team), 8.5 tackles for loss (4th on the team), 4.5 sacks (3rd on the team), 2 interceptions (3rd on the team), 9 passes defended (3rd on the team), 5 forced fumbles (1st on the team), and 3 fumble recoveries (1st on the team)... as a 5'9, 170 freshman nickel back that didn't play every down.

At this point, we thought we may have something special.

Some myths are true.

2011 proved special for LSU, no matter how it ended. Perhaps nothing proved more special than the performance of Tyrann Mathieu, who many suspected would regress with the loss of Patrick Peterson. Instead, Mathieu responded by leading the team in tackles, placing 2nd in breakups and passes defended, and once again leading the team in forced fumbles and fumble recoveries. Each game, Mathieu responded, ALL YOUR FOOTBALL BELONG TO US. And no, it wasn't just embarrassing the likes of Western Kentucky; in LSU's biggest games, Mathieu seemed to show up the largest:

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via i.imgur.com

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Mathieu's efforts earned him an invite to NYC for the Heisman Ceremony, making him the first LSU player to finish in the top five since Charles Alexander in 1978. He would also lay claim to the Chuck Bednarik Award, SEC Defensive Player of the Year, SEC Championship Game MVP, First Team All-SEC and Consensus All-American honors. As a true sophomore. The Thorpe Award eluded him, going instead to his teammate, Morris Claiborne, which in hindsight makes you wonder how the nation's best defensive player wasn't also considered the best at his position.

Some myths are true.

Mathieu's reptuation grew larger than life, both on and off the field. In July of 2012, I wrote an opinion piece about Mathieu being hard to like. Less than a month later, he was booted from the program, never to play another down for LSU. Mathieu's saga would then be played out in those long summer months, culminating with him declaring for the NFL draft, just a month after being arrested for drug related offenses.

The fairy tale ended abruptly and without the prince nabbing his beauty. All at once, "Tyrann Mathieu, LSU Legend" became "Tyrann Mathieu, LSU Degenerate." In the ensuing months his character would be given the cheese grater treatment, constantly baptized by fire and spoken by the national media as if he were a pariah to all that is human. There was little attention given to the nuance and difficulty of his situation. He was labeled a character risk, while "analysts" scrambled to find reasons to diminish his on-field accomplishments, primarily turning back to the same old tropes we'd heard time and again: not the biggest, not the fastest, not the strongest.

All the while, Mathieu was, as he was always want to do, writing his own story. He was getting clean; he was being mentored by a fellow LSU legend. While the voices chirped, Mathieu set out to do what the great ones do: get better. The Arizona Cardinals took a "risk" and drafted him in the 3rd round, which analysts, many of whom derided him as a "risk" and "team cancer" then universally praised in what is the type of non-stop "analysis" you are sure to hear in every subsequent NFL draft to come.

Some myths are true.

Mathieu went on to have a remarkable NFL rookie campaign, performing much the same as we saw throughout his collegiate career, doing things like this:

Lolrams_medium

via assets.sbnation.com

Just 13 games into his NFL season, he not only was starting for a great defense, he managed 68 tackles, a sack, a forced fumble, and a couple picks. It's the same Mathieu we always knew, just in different colors, in a different place. Suddenly all the risk talked was dyed in white, born again in the blood of football performance. No one's a risk when they are making tackles and forcing fumbles and snagging interceptions. Quietly, Mathieu praised Peterson for his mentorship.

Yes, two years ago, I wrote that Mathieu was hard to like. But now, in 2014, I find Mathieu to most likable of all LSU athletes. He's a kid that excelled, then failed, then rose again. His story is even better than a second chance narrative. It's bigger than a tale of someone overcoming. Tyrann Mathieu stood for a lot of things at LSU: his playmaking, his attitude, his leadership, his failures. Some men live on in our dreams, relics of richest portions of our memory. Oftentimes, their stories are remembered better than they truly were. But in the case of Tyrann Mathieu...

Some myths are true.

Other Entries to the Best Players of the Les Miles Era Series:

#4 Jamarcus Russell

#5 Jarvis Landry

#6 Morris Claiborne

#7 Jeremy Hill

#8 Eric Reid

#9 Zach Mettenberger

#10 LaRon Landry

#11 Jacob Hester

#12 Kevin Minter

#13 Sam Montgomery

#14 Brandon Taylor

#15 Odell Beckham Jr

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