Tyrann Mathieu is a sophomore cornerback on LSU. He wears #7 in honor of his mentor Patrick Peterson who left after his junior season after which he was selected with the fifth overall pick by the Arizona Cardinals in the 2011 NFL Draft. Mathieu is a play-maker in the same vein as Peterson was at LSU, and may even have a greater impact. Mathieu is truly a ball-hawk, a play-maker at cornerback and as a return man, and his versatility within LSU’s defensive scheme makes him incredibly valuable. He may not be the largest defender on the field, but there is little doubt that he has the biggest impact.
Size: Mathieu doesn’t have very good size for a cornerback as he is listed at just 5’9”, 175 pounds. I have maintained that if he was two or three inches taller he would be discussed as a potential top five pick, but his size is one of the only knocks on him as a prospect. He more than makes up for his lack of ideal size, but when you see him line up opposite a receiver you notice that he has a natural disadvantage due to his height.
Athleticism: Mathieu is a fantastic athlete. He has great straight line speed, impressive quickness and burst, he changes directions very easily, he closes very effectively and he absolutely flies around the field when he steps onto it. His athleticism helps mask his lack of size.
Man Coverage: Mathieu doesn’t play a vast amount of man coverage at LSU (or at least I haven’t seen him do so) because they moved him around a lot last year as a nickel corner, and this year he often plays inside on the slot guy. However, he has fluid hips, he changes directions well, he closes incredibly fast on plays in front of him, he recovers very quickly on plays behind him, and he mirrors receivers well thanks to his quick reaction time. I think he could be a great man coverage corner, I just haven’t seen a ton of evidence of it yet due to how LSU uses him.
Zone Coverage: Mathieu is lethal in zone coverage for many of the same reasons he is lethal in man coverage. He is very instinctual (indicates he likely watches a LOT of film) and he reads quarterbacks very well. Then, once he knows where the ball is going, he is off like a rocket closing on the ball and more times than not if it is thrown near him he makes a play on it to either break up the pass or to make an interception. He is incredibly comfortable in space and his closing speed makes him a special zone corner.
Run Support: This is one aspect of Mathieu’s game that really surprised me the first time or two that I saw him last year as a freshman. He closes on the running game the same way he closes on passes in the air and that is surprisingly rare for cornerbacks. He is very willing in run support, he loves laying down a big hit, and he’s not afraid to tackle running backs that are much larger than he is. He may be one of the best run support corners in the entire country.
Tackling: Mathieu is a very reliable tackler. He does miss tackles in open space at times, but most players do miss those on occasion. However, I would say he is a very good tackler especially for a cornerback. He is a fundamentally sound tackler and he doesn’t drop his head when he attempts tackles. This often results in missed tackles and a surprising number of players do this. On top of all that, he also packs a serious punch as a hitter. He is one of the best corners in the country when it comes to hit power and his proficiency for forcing fumbles.
Blitzing: Mathieu is an effective blitzing corner and he is very dangerous coming off the edge as a blitzing corner. He seems to be pretty good at knowing when to come late, when to show he is coming, and when to show that he’s coming and then drop back into coverage. It isn’t as much of a surprise to see him blitzing as a sophomore because he was so incredibly successful doing so as a freshman, but he hasn’t had quite as much success blitzing off the edge thus far this year. However, I would argue that his lack of success has something to do with coaching staffs scheming to make sure he isn’t the one to create pressure and get a hit on their quarterback because of his proficiency for forcing turnovers.
Ball Skills: Mathieu’s ball skills are out of this world. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a player who is more of a ball-hawk than Mathieu is. He flies to the ball constantly, he has great hands to make tough catches in traffic or on diving attempts, locates the ball very well in the air, he adjusts to the ball effectively in the air, and he will do anything to make a pass deflection or an interception. This part of his game is the part that truly sets him apart and makes him a rare, special corner.
Intangibles: I believe that Mathieu has very impressive intangibles. He’s an aggressive player and he plays with great energy all the time, and I think he has fantastic instincts and I would imagine that has something to do with good study habits. However, he does have a tendency to get in people’s faces due to his intensity, and I see him “barking” at players after the play is over which will eventually get noticed and draw penalties in college and in the NFL. I think he has had a late hit or two when I have watched him as well, and that is something that he needs to make sure he doesn’t do. You love the intensity and his willingness to fight until the whistle, but late hits are cheap yards for the offense and he can’t make simple mistakes like that.
Overall: As I’m sure you can tell by reading my breakdown of Mathieu’s game, I am a huge fan of his. If I were forced to pick one favorite player in all of college football I think it would be him. He plays with a reckless abandon, he’s the definition of a playmaker and a ball-hawk, and he plays the game the right way. He is everything you could want in a corner, even if he’s two inches shorter than he ideally would be. He has top five-ten ability and if teams can look past his height they will get an absolute stud once he is draft eligible. Because that’s the amazing thing: Mathieu is still only a sophomore. He still has another year after this season to develop. I just hope that he stays healthy for the rest of his LSU career and for his very promising NFL career. He has a ton of upside and potential, and if you haven’t seen him play I encourage you to find a way to watch a LSU game this year or next. You won’t see a talent like this very often, even in the SEC. He’s truly a special player.
Projection: Top 15 in 2013 draft. As good as Mathieu is and will be by the time he is draft eligible his size will still be a knock on him. For some players it makes sense to knock them because their lack of size will inhibit them as playmakers in the NFL. I think Mathieu is an exception to that rule. Regardless, I find it hard to imagine that he will get picked in the top five or ten overall selections even as his skills continue to develop. But if he fell out of the top 15 it would be an absolute travesty for someone with his level of talent.