He boasts one of the most colorful nicknames in recent college football history.
Maybe more importantly, he’s got the playmaking ability to live up to that nickname. And that’s why, as only a sophomore, LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu became one of the biggest stars in all of college football, going from a little-known defensive back to a Heisman finalists in the space of just a few months.
Mathieu, a native of New Orleans, earned a reputation as one of the nation’s best prep playmakers during his days at St. Augustine High School, where he recorded 32 tackles, one sack and one fumble recovery during his senior season. For his efforts he was named to the SuperPrep All-American team, the New Orleans Times-Picayune 2010 Blue-Chip List, the Baton Rouge Advocate Super Dozen and the Mobile Press Register Super Southeast 120. He was also ranked among the top 250 players in the nation by Rivals.com, which listed him as the country’s 13th-best cornerback.
Mathieu was not heavily recruited by national powers and ultimately decided to stay home and play his college football at LSU. It didn’t take him long to make an impact in Baton Rouge.
Mathieu didn’t earn a starting job his freshman year—he was playing behind All-American Patrick Peterson at the time—but he certainly showed what he was capable of when he took the field as the Tigers’ top nickel back. By season’s end, Mathieu had recorded five forced fumbles—that was tops in the SEC, fifth in the nation—and three fumble recoveries. His seven pass break-ups were the most on the team, and he was fourth among the Tigers with 57 tackles. He also recorded 8.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks and two interceptions—all of this, mind you, even though he wasn’t even a starter. He capped his spectacular freshman year with a seven-tackle performance in the Cotton Bowl, where he also had one tackle for loss, forced two fumbles and recovered another, and had one interception, one sack and one pass break-up. He was named the game’s most outstanding defensive player.
He only got better in 2011. The Tigers entered the season listed among the favorites to win both the SEC title and the national title, and from the start, Mathieu proved himself essential to his team’s title aspirations. In the Tigers’ crucial season-opening showdown against highly regarded Oregon, Mathieu recorded 10 tackles, one forced fumble, a tackle for loss and two pass breakups. He was named SEC Defensive Player of the Week, and from there, the rest is history. By the time Mathieu earned Walter Camp National Defensive Player of the Week honors for his spectacular performance against West Virginia—he forced a fumble, recovered a fumble, and intercepted a pass that he returned to the 1-yard line—he was known far and wide both for his obvious talent and his nickname, ‘The Honey Badger.’ The name was given to him because of his tenacious style of play.
By season’s end, Mathieu had racked up 70 tackles, most on his team, and ranked first in the SEC both in forced fumbles and recovered fumbles. He also ranked second nationally in punt return average, at 16.2 yards per attempt, and made one final statement in his team’s comeback win over Georgia in the SEC Championship Game; on that day, when his Tigers needed him most, Mathieu delivered two spectacular punt returns, one a 62-yard touchdown, and in so doing secured a spot among the finalists for the Heisman Trophy. Though Mathieu didn’t ultimately win that award (Baylor’s Robert Griffin III deservedly walked off with the honor), the Honey Badger certainly did OK come awards time. He was given Bednarik Award as the nation’s best defensive player and was named first-team All-American by the Associated Press, the Sporting News, ESPN.com and numerous other outlets. He was also named SEC Defensive Player of the Year.