By Morgan Prewitt
As the 2015 football season approaches, the DIG Sports staff decided to take a look back and rank the top ten LSU players of the Les Miles era (2005-present). The Tigers have had 64 players drafted into the NFL with Miles at the helm, and the program led all schools with 38 former players on active NFL rosters during the opening weekend of the 2014 season.
No. 2 Tyrann Mathieu
Nickname: Honey Badger
Position: Defensive Back
Career Highlight: Strip of Oregon’s Kenjon Barner in the 2011 Cowboy Classic
Eye-Popping Stat: Holds the LSU career record for forced fumbles with 11, good for seventh-most in NCAA history and tied for an SEC high.
NFL Draft: 2013 / Round 3 / Pick: 69 / Arizona Cardinals
Before the 2011 season started, few people outside of Louisiana had ever heard of Tyrann Mathieu.
The 5-foot 9-inch, former three star recruit (by ESPN, four star by 24/7 Sports) was far from an ideal defensive back prospect. Unlike his friend and Tiger legend Patrick Peterson, who entered LSU as the nation’s No. 1 overall defensive back recruit in 2007 before capturing the Thorpe and Bednarik Awards in 2010.
After Peterson headed to the NFL following the 2010 season, Mathieu made a name for himself while continuing the tradition of Peterson’s No. 7 jersey with his passionate and tenacious style of play, which earned him the nickname the “Honey Badger.”
Mathieu’s storybook season began in style under the lights of Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, in LSU’s season opener against No. 3 Oregon on Sept. 3, 2011.
Despite earning a field goal on the opening drive, the Tigers’ offense stalled for the third-straight drive as Brad Wing lined up to punt from LSU’s own 31-yard line early in the second quarter.
Wing’s booming punt hung in the air as Mathieu sprinted downfield in coverage. He was a couple yards away when Oregon’s Kenjon Barner made the catch at his own 16-yard line.
As Barner spun to avoid the tackle, Mathieu drove him back and ripped the ball free at the three-yard line before sauntering into the end zone to put LSU ahead 9-6, giving LSU its first lead of the game.
Mathieu’s mastery of the strip translated into an unprecedented production of force fumbles throughout his two seasons with LSU.
After setting and breaking his own single season forced fumble records, Mathieu career total of 11 forced fumbles shattered the previous LSU record of 7 set by Jeffery Dale (1981-84) and is also an SEC record.
Along with creating turnovers, Mathieu followed in Peterson’s footsteps as one of most electric and dangerous punt returners in the country.
In 2011, Mathieu’s 15.6 yard average per punt return was second the Southeastern Conference and fourth in the NCAA. He also finished with the sixth-most total punt return yards in LSU single-season history with 421 yards on 21 returns.
Mathieu’s ability to shake defenders in both the open field and in close quarters translated into back-to-back weeks with punt returns for touchdowns against Arkansas on Nov. 25, 2011, and Georgia in the SEC Championship Game on Dec. 3, 2011.
Against Arkansas, Mathieu ran into the history books when he turned a punt 92-yards, tied for the third longest punt return in program history.
After already weaving through the Bulldogs’ punt return coverage for a 62-yard return for a touchdown in the second quarter, Mathieu nearly stutter-stepped his way to another one with a 47-yard return in the third quarter.
Mathieu’s performance in the SEC Championship game earned him the SEC Championship Game Most Valuable Player honors, which was the first in a collection of postseason accolades to come his way.
Along with being named a First Team All-American and capturing the Tigers’ second-straight Bednarik Award, Mathieu became the first LSU player to travel to New York City as a Heisman Trophy finalist since Charles Alexander in 1977. The New Orleans native finished fifth in the voting.
Heading into 2012, Mathieu was one of the game’s most beloved players until he was abruptly dismissed from the program on August 10, 2012, due to a “violation of team rules.” Any chance of his return to the Tigers was dashed by a drug-related arrest in October 2012.
After spending months battling to get another chance, Mathieu was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals in the 3rd Round of the 2013 NFL Draft.
Playing behind Peterson as a safety, Mathieu has emerged as one of the brightest young stars at the next level.
Despite his off-the-field issues, Mathieu remains one of the most talented players to ever wear an LSU uniform.