TEMPE, Ariz. -- Before Tyrann Mathieu was known as "Honey Badger," he was Neo.
His high school coach, Del Lee, likened Mathieu to Keanu Reeves’ character from "The Matrix" because of how Mathieu saw the field. Instead of watching plays unfold like a typical high school cornerback, Mathieu was seeing things in a matrix, Lee said.
But Mathieu wasn’t just in the zone, or the matrix, on occasion.
“He lived there,” Lee said. “I always called him Neo because he knew how to slow everything down around him.
“Those same plays he made in college, those same plays he makes in the NFL; I could find a clip of where he did that in high school.”
What the highlights show -- Mathieu’s interception in front of Dallas tight end Jason Witten last weekend, his forced fumble against St. Louis tight end Jared Cook last year -- are the product of a dangerous combination of rare football IQ and God-given ability.
“He’s got unbelievable instincts,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. “He’s got the quickest hands to punch balls out and he’s got great hands catching balls.
“He’s a risk-taker but he never gets beat. That’s the amazing thing. He’s one in a million. I’m glad he’s on our team.”
It’s tough for Arizona’s coaches to describe Mathieu without mentioning his nose for the ball and natural instincts to find the ball, which, in college, bred the Honey Badger nickname. His innate ability to make plays were one reason the Arizona Cardinals took a chance on him in the third round of the 2013 draft and was a major reason Mathieu saw the field early in his rookie season.
And this year, it’s helping him regain his confidence after ACL and LCL surgery on his left knee sidelined him for more than eight months.
Mathieu says he has a sixth sense for the football. Going back to youth football, he said he saw things before they happened. He knew when receivers or running backs would cut back. He calls it anticipation. Cardinals defensive backs coach Nick Rapone calls it instincts.
“For some reason, I was always attracted to the football,” Mathieu said.
Lee said his instincts often lead to game-changing plays.
“Without those skills, he would’ve got [to the ball] and made a tackle, but because he’s so instinctive, with those skills he’s able to get his hands on balls and get interceptions and turnovers,” Lee said.
“His hand-eye coordination is second to none.”
Mathieu said it’s a product of play recognition and understanding route concepts. He can thank Lee for that.
Lee noticed Mathieu’s extra sense between his sophomore and junior seasons. Mathieu was taking “college reps,” Lee called them, because he was in the “best position possible to have all of the best angles and have a serious understanding of where his body was.”
Mathieu began watching film with Lee in high school, and his understanding of what offenses do began to grow. By his senior year, Mathieu was playing in a Cover 2 defense for Lee. Lee remembered Mathieu watching two receivers run their routes and he'd break away from one to intercept a pass targeted for the other because he knew where his break would be.
“Most of the time players give away what they’re about to do,” Mathieu said. “It’s not really a big deal.”
His ball-hawking skills continued through college into the NFL, where it took Rapone all of two meetings last year to recognize Mathieu’s smarts. He looked to cornerbacks coach Kevin Ross amazed.
“I said, ‘Kevin, this kid is pretty darn smart,’” Rapone said. “His retention is excellent. You got to remember; he came in here and learned two positions.”
Mathieu had four months to learn how to play nickelback and safety after spending his college and high school careers at cornerback. Even though he sees the field differently than most other defensive backs, learning two new positions in the NFL was a challenge. Actually for Mathieu, it was “extremely hard” because not only was he handed added responsibility, but he felt he had to fight off Jerraud Powers and Rashad Johnson for his nickel and safety positions, respectively.
In both positions, he was required to learn how to adjust the defense. As a rookie, Mathieu was suddenly a point guard on one of the top defenses in the league. All that came after Mathieu missed his junior year at LSU.
“What he does is he understands concepts,” Rapone said. “Football’s all concepts. He understands first of all what we’re attempting to do and he understands what they’re attempting to do.”
But he does it in slow motion.
Mathieu seems to sees the field almost like Neo saw life inside The Matrix, and it sped up his transition to the NFL.
“I know when I came in the NFL, a lot of people talked about that learning curve,” Mathieu said. “I don’t think I ever hit that. Of course, I had to learn a new position and new things but I never really got stuck at trying to learn anything.
“It just all came natural to me. I’m not as smart in class like I am when it comes to football class, but when you get on that football field it’s all about making the plays.”
Rapone, who has coached for 35 years, put it into perspective.
“He’s able to see it just like you and I are able to watch a movie,” Rapone said.
The Neo and Honey Badger of old are making a comeback.
In recent weeks, Mathieu has been slowly returning to form. Against Philadelphia in Week 8, he got a major deflection. A week later in Dallas, his first interception came.
The instincts Lee saw Mathieu develop in high school may be rusty, but they haven’t gone away.
“If I stay in high school,” Lee said. “I will not come across another guy like that for 15, 20 years.”