NEW ORLEANS – Thoughts race through Tyrann Mathieu’s brain as his piercing stare finds the opposing offense’s huddle.
For only a split second his eyes wander, as he scans his surroundings. He checks to see what down it is. Glances at the yard marker to calculate the precise distance needed for the first down, then communicates with his teammates.
LSU’s superstar sophomore cornerback finds some sort of order with his defensive comrades before fixing his eyes back on the huddle. In real time, it’s been only a matter of seconds, maybe shorter, but in Mathieu’s brain it’s been an eternity.
Before the unassuming quarterback even receives the snap, Mathieu already has a pretty good idea of where the ball is headed.
In fact, he knows before the huddle is broken.
The Honey Badger is well into hunter mode as he waits for the exact moment to strike.
Once the quarterback has the ball, he assumes it’s his decision on where to send it and how to avoid Mathieu, but usually it isn’t. Usually, the Honey Badger’s instincts direct him toward where the ball should go. If they fail, he’s usually too fast for anyone to notice.
“You kind of see the play before it happens and put yourself in position to make a play,” Mathieu said.
“Practicing plays and seeing it in real speed is one thing, but to know what formation they may line up in before the snap, just off down and distance, that gives you an advantage.”
For all the talk about how physically gifted Mathieu is, it’s his brain and his eyes that do the lifting. What you don’t see are the brain waves zipping around, helping him determine where to position himself. What you don’t see are his eyes zeroing in on a player, a part of the field or the ball.
Because of countless hours Mathieu puts in during game weeks meticulously dissecting each play, each player tendency, how long it takes for a quarterback to release the ball, what receivers’ favorite routes are and each trend of every team he faces, Mathieu has an acute sense of vision and exemplary timing that make him the nation’s most exciting – and feared – defensive player.
“Tyrann has an unusual view,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “His eye gets a little bit big and he says, ‘We’re fixin’ to do something,’ and generally it happens.”
Mathieu should obviously credit his ability to good genes, but he mostly attributes his mental advantages to his homework. While he can have a very big personality out on the field, Mathieu is quietly a nerd of the game. He puts just as much time into honing his ball skills and shaping his body as he does studying his opponents.
Junior corner Morris Claiborne couldn’t come close to counting the hours the two spend watching game film. It’s almost second nature for both to wander into the film room at odd times of the day.
Claiborne and Mathieu constantly pick each other’s brains for new material and not a film session goes by where both don’t learn something new about a player or formation.
Mathieu’s speed and athleticism played a major role in his ability to lead LSU with 70 tackles, grab seven takeaways, force six fumbles and defend nine passes this season, but he’d be nowhere without his awareness.
“Some people can make plays, but they don’t know actually what to do,” Claiborne said. “When you can put both of them together, it’s amazing.”
Another important ingredient in Mathieu’s game is his confidence. The Honey Badger feeds off his mettle. Mathieu said he tries to play within the defensive scheme as much as he can, but there’s no escaping his need for improvisation. If he thinks he can get to the ball, he’ll make a break for it.
“He thinks he can make every play,” defensive coordinator John Chavis said.
Added Mathieu: “The things you see, you have to believe in it. You can’t second-guess yourself. When you see something that looks familiar, just go ahead on and make the play.”
Mathieu’s array of talents will be put to the test one last time this season in the Allstate BCS National Championship Game on Monday — against an Alabama team he says he played poorly against the first time.
Mathieu didn’t exactly take what he wanted back on Nov. 5 … but the Honey Badger is a relentless animal.
“Oh, he always finds a way to get to the ball,” cornerback Brandon Taylor said.