Stars Claiborne, Mathieu give LSU unrivaled richness at cornerback
A team hasn't been as loaded at corner as LSU since Florida State in early 2000s
Tyrann Mathieu and Morris Claiborne had chance to learn from Patrick Peterson
Neither was an elite recruit, but they complement each other, fit scheme ideally
NEW ORLEANS -- In anticipation of Monday's LSU-Alabama BCS championship rematch, media have descended on New Orleans to pepper coaches and players with such pressing questions as "How hard is it to tackle Trent Richardson?" and "Do you prefer playing on turf or grass?"
Here's what I want to know more than anything: How the heck did LSU get so loaded at cornerback?
There are myriad reasons the Tigers rolled to a 13-0 regular season, but blanketing the field with a pair of All-Americas in Thorpe Award winner Morris Claiborne and Heisman finalist Tyrann Mathieu is high on the list. Remarkably, these guys helped LSU replace another premier cornerback, current Arizona Cardinals All-Pro Patrick Peterson, the Thorpe Award winner a year ago.
A program hasn't been this stacked at corner since the early 2000s, when Miami replaced first-round draft picks Phillip Buchanon and Mike Rumph with a future first-rounder in Antrel Rolle. And as LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis proudly notes, he also coached Peterson's Thorpe Award predecessor, safety Eric Berry, at Tennessee prior to joining LSU in 2009.
"That speaks highly for what we do -- developing players, putting them in position to make plays," said Chavis. "But also, talent. You don't do those things without talent, and all three of those guys are very talented guys."
Unlike Berry and Peterson, who were both five-star recruits rated among the best at their position, neither Claiborne nor Mathieu was initially projected to reach this level. Their emergence became a testament to LSU's ability to plug players into the proper pieces in its scheme.
Claiborne, a 2009 signee from Shreveport, was a high school quarterback with blazing speed. Both the offensive and defensive coaches wanted him, but Miles saw a need at corner. "Could Mo have gone over to offense and done the same thing?" said Chavis. "Absolutely. He's that talented." Instead, Claiborne spent his freshman season backing up Peterson.
Even then, Chavis had seen enough to project Claiborne's future.
"I told someone this two years ago, and I think it's a compliment to both," Chavis said. "Everybody talked about Pat, and Pat Peterson was a great football player, still is. You see what he's done in the NFL. I said we won't drop off, because Mo's going to be every bit as good. And we felt that strong his first year in."
Mathieu arrived a year later with even less fanfare. LSU was the only SEC school to make a scholarship offer to the 5-foot-9, 175-pound New Orleans native, and few would have envisioned the soon-to-be-dubbed Honey Badger making the impact he did as a true freshman last season. Playing primarily as a nickel back, Mathieu notched 4.5 sacks, five forced fumbles and seven pass breakups, making him the logical choice to move opposite Claiborne following Peterson's departure to the pros.
"Tyrann was definitely under my wing everywhere I went," Peterson recently told the Sporting News. "If we weren't going to lunch together, he was coming over to the house to watch film. Even in the summer time, when he first got there."
Now, Mathieu has another partner. He and Claiborne complement each other with their differing skill sets and personalities. Claiborne serves as the Tigers' bedrock, a prototype lockdown corner who's intercepted six passes and returned them for a national-best 173 yards.
"He shuts down his side of the field completely," said Mathieu. "He's definitely the [Darrelle] Revis of our team."
The flamboyant Mathieu roams more freely, taking chances. He's more likely to give up pass completions, but he's always at the ball, leading the team in tackles (70) and making the type of game-changing plays (six forced fumbles, five fumble recoveries, two interceptions) that fuel his ubiquitous nickname.
"Ty's the type of guy that likes to play with a chip on his shoulder," said Claiborne. "He's coming after you no matter what, and he's going to talk [smack] to you in the process of doing that."
It's no accident that both players -- as well as Peterson and Berry before them -- were able to start contributing from nearly the moment they arrived on campus. While Chavis' defensive scheme is complex, with multiple looks and varied blitzes designed to fluster opponents, he and defensive backs coach Ron Cooper try to keep things simple for their corners.
"The simplicity comes in the technique," said Chavis. "We feel we do a great job of teaching technique, and I think that's where you win. The simplicity of it allows young guys to go out and learn the system and get involved early. But we make those parts in our system interchangeable in terms of combining some different techniques one side and other."
LSU's defense, which ranks second nationally in scoring and total defense behind championship opponent Alabama, is talented from front to back, starting with an ultra-deep defensive line that enables the Tigers to stay fresh and withstand the pounding of physical offenses. They've excelled against a wide variety of offensive styles, slowing down Oregon's up-tempo spread in the season opener, containing West Virginia's pass-happy attack (which just put up 70 points on Clemson in Wednesday's Orange Bowl) and holding two of the SEC's top offenses, Arkansas and Georgia, well below their average production levels in season-ending blowouts.
But for Chavis, whose 1998 Tennessee defense helped the Vols win the first BCS championship, the Tigers' success starts with Claiborne and Mathieu. Being able to count on them to handle their assignments allows LSU the flexibility to mix up its coverages.
"To play our scheme, you really have to be good there -- not at one corner but at both corners," said Chavis. "And it takes speed to play out there with the matchups you're going to be involved in."
That's the common thread with all of LSU's standout corners. Peterson's speed has been evident on his four return touchdowns as an NFL rookie. Mathieu showed off his own wheels with momentum-changing punt return touchdowns in back-to-back weeks against Arkansas and Georgia. And Claiborne, the fastest player on LSU's roster, still harbors hopes of eventually seeing time at receiver.
"I'll be glad not to play against [Claiborne] again," said Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain, who will take over as Colorado State's head coach after the title game. "The guy's pretty good."
Indeed, Claiborne is so good he's considered a consensus top five pick in April's NFL draft, assuming he skips his senior season. Which brings me back to my original quandary.
How is it possible for one school to produce a top five pick at corner in consecutive years? (Peterson went No. 5 last year.) And how is it remotely possible that neither of those draftees is the player who just became the first corner to earn a Heisman ceremony invitation since 1997 winner Charles Woodson?
"A lot of people said when we lost Pat, those were pretty big shoes to fill, and they were," said Claiborne. "But before he left, he had us working every day, and when he left, we didn't stop."
Claiborne and Mathieu didn't just fill Peterson's shoes. They shined them up, put them on and raced to New Orleans.