As some national college football pundits continue to heap dirt on LSU’s 2012 season – and the suddenly revamped secondary in particular – consider this: The cupboard is far from bare.
Yes, losing Tyrann Mathieu and all be brought to the Tigers on defense and special teams will be a steep challenge.
But anybody who thinks Mathieu is irreplaceable, even if it takes several players filling his roles by committee, hasn’t spent a lot of time getting familiar with the talent the LSU coaches have stockpiled.
As is the case at most positions, the Tigers are loaded with talent in the secondary. Right now it is inexperienced talent, yes, but that was also the case in 2010 when Mathieu, Eric Reid and Tharold Simon were freshmen and those three emerged as budding stars at different points of that season.
“We have good players,” LSU coach Les Miles said Friday.
“We have guys in the back of the room that are similar. The challenge will be to see if they can step in.”
For the current crop of rookie cornerbacks – redshirt freshman Jalen Collins and true freshmen Jalen Mills, Dwayne Thomas and Derrick Raymond – what Friday’s news means is that they will have to work their way around the learning curve a lot faster than expected.
Collins looms as the first man up at cornerback after a strong performance last spring, culminating with 3 tackles and 2 pass breakups in the spring game.
“Jalen Collins is going to be a phenomenal player,” receiver Odell Beckham Jr. said last March after the spring game. “He’s got a great body type, a 6-3 lanky corner. It’s hard to just get past him.”
Like Collins, Mills spent the first several days of pre-season camp working with the veterans instead of the freshmen and newcomers. Thomas also had some big moments and Raymond showed up on campus as one of the fastest members in the Class of 2012.
Once the cornerback spot is resolved, filling Mathieu’s other roles becomes intriguing.
Mathieu was at his best last season when he was the extra defensive back and able to roam and sniff out big-play possibilities. That was where he was operating for most of his 6 forced fumbles and 9 pass breakups.
Who fills those shoes? There’s no shortage of candidates for that job.
Any of the young corners could slide into the extra DB role, as could one of the veteran safeties – Eric Reid or Craig Loston. Don’t count out backup safeties Micah Eugene and Ronald Martin getting on the field more under the current circumstances, either.
“We have a lot of guys who can move around and play different roles,” Reid said earlier this week. “Our coaches want all of us to be able to play any spot in the secondary.”
The final element LSU loses with Mathieu’s dismissal is as a punt returner, and filling that void may be the most challenging task.
The two most obvious candidates are starting receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, and Miles made it clear Beckham could get the first crack.
As a freshman, Beckham fielded nine punts and turned in a modest 8.6-yard average. He was more effective on kickoffs with a 24-yard average on five tries.
|Odell Beckham Jr.|
“Odell Beckham will be a very talented punt returner, and I think we’re OK at kick returner, as well,” Miles said.
Landry could be an interesting option as well. He seems to possess the same kind of playmaker gene as Mathieu and is very comfortable on special teams – which could give him a comfort level at reading blocks as the field opens up in front of him.
What is evident is that no one player will step in and deliver what Mathieu did.
The possibility exists, though, for LSU to improve in terms of pass defense if one of the young corners shows he can cover receivers better than Mathieu. And there is no shortage of playmakers capable of supplying a bolt of lightning now and again as an extra DB or on special teams.
Replacing Mathieu will be a task by committee, and there is plenty of talent in that committee to absorb this unexpected blow.
“This issue is bad news for one guy, and an adjustment that needs to be made by everyone,” Miles said.
Collins readies for bigger role