BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU’s Tyrann Mathieu emerged as one of college football’s biggest stars last season.
As a rule, stars are typically branded with nicknames, and Mathieu had a catchy one -- the Honey Badger.
He also had a knack for making game-changing plays and made enough of them that he earned a trip to New York City as a Heisman Trophy finalist, not to mention consensus All-America honors, in leading the Tigers to a 13-1 record and BCS runner-up finish.
But when Mathieu reflects on what was truly a remarkable sophomore season, he uses words like “humbled” and “disappointment” and “hungry.”
He just wishes he could have done more, specifically in that 21-0 loss to Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game. Even in the first game against Alabama, a 9-6 overtime win by LSU, Mathieu concedes he wasn’t at his best.
“My job is making plays for this team, and I didn’t do it in that last game,” said Mathieu, who in 25 career games has created a staggering 14 turnovers. “It’s definitely motivation and something I’ve carried with me. There are a lot of people out there who have talked specifically about both of those games (against Alabama) and me not making plays in those two games.
“So, yes, it’s motivation, but I really didn’t need anybody to talk about what I didn’t do in those two games to motivate me. I already know, and I’ll be a better player next year because of it.”
Mathieu’s teammates say he’s being too hard on himself. Had it not been for him, the Tigers probably wouldn’t have been in New Orleans in the first place.
His defensive touchdown against Oregon in the season opener swung that game. His punt return for a touchdown completely changed the complexion of the Arkansas game in the regular-season finale, and his punt return for a touchdown a week later against Georgia in the SEC championship game woke up a stagnant LSU offense and sent the Tigers on their way to 42-10 rout.
“It wasn’t only Tyrann in that last game. It was everybody, the team as a whole,” said LSU safety Eric Reid, who tied Mathieu for the team lead with 76 tackles last season.
“We know there were a bunch of plays that we could have made that would have helped the team. I know it hurts Tyrann that a couple of passes got caught on him, but that game wasn’t on him. It was on all of us. He’s extremely motivated to get his technique down, and I can’t wait to see what he does this year.”
One of the things Mathieu zeroed in on this spring was being better in man-to-man coverage. The Tigers used him as a rover in their nickel package, and that was his forte.
He has incredible instincts and is always around the ball as evidenced by his six forced fumbles and five fumble recoveries last season. He also intercepted two passes.
“All the great players have physical attributes,” Mathieu said. “But the really great ones can play the game in their heads.”
Along those lines, Mathieu has spent even more time in the film room this offseason. As instinctive as he is on the field, he wants to be equally prepared in 2012. He also wants to shoot down one of the few knocks against him, which is that he’s just so-so in man coverage.
“You’re not going to be able to be all over the field every game with the scheme some offenses run,” Mathieu said. “But you’ve still got to make plays at your position, and that’s my focus. If I’m at cornerback, I want to lock my man down. If I’m at nickel, I just want to roam the field and make some plays.
“I want to be great, and where I play, that means being a lock-down cornerback. And with me being 5-9, it gives me even more fire to go out there and prove a lot of people wrong.”
Mathieu said he played right around 180 pounds last season, but finished the spring closer to 190. Of course, he hits like he weighs 250. He also battled through an ankle injury the last few weeks of spring, but was seeing things on the field better than ever.
“The game was kind of slow for me my freshman year and even slower my sophomore year,” Mathieu said. “But, now, I anticipate plays even better, know the down and distances and know what to expect.
“I’m just taking all that in, all the experiences I’ve had, and getting in extra film study and getting even more familiar with the game mentally.”
Mathieu is also getting used to his celebrity status. Even in media interviews, he’s a lot more comfortable and willing to discuss what makes the Honey Badger tick.
He says his one-game suspension last season for reportedly testing positive for synthetic marijuana was something that he learned from and something he wished he could undo.
“It humbles you, because you know you have a responsibility to a lot of people, and I let those people down, especially my teammates,” Mathieu said.
That’s a big part of his motivation going forward. He knows how close LSU was to something special last season, and so do his teammates.
Mathieu said it was difficult to describe the sense of purpose that permeated the practice field this spring.
“That last game got to everybody,” he said. “You could definitely see it in our offense. Those guys were throwing the ball all over the field, and the receivers, even in perfect coverage, were still coming down with the ball. I know those guys took that last game to heart, but the defense also took it to heart. We didn’t play our best game, either.
“We’re all going into next season with that game in the back of our minds. It hasn’t gone away, and I don’t know if it will. I just know that we don’t want to ever have that feeling again.”