If Tyrann Mathieu’s off-field issues make him too radioactive for some NFL teams to draft, then perhaps his electrifying ability to return punts will entice others to take a chance on the former LSU standout.
Teams worried that Mathieu is too small to be a regular at defensive back may like him as a full-time punt returner. Mathieu has a well-documented history of drug problems, but his ability to make big plays as a return man is part of the reason he still figures to be drafted no later than the third round.
Mathieu has drawbacks as a defensive back, and his background carries risk, but as his official NFL draft report notes, Mathieu is a “game-changer” as a return man — with no weaknesses.
“Very good vision and short-area quickness as a punt returner; can make the first man miss and cut back effectively against the grain,” the report says. “Will go outside if the space is there, but also slalom through traffic up the field when necessary. Also has balance and strength to get through arm tackles.”
Georgia Bulldogs fans can vouch for that analysis. Mathieu helped beat the Bulldogs with a pair of spectacular punt returns in the 2011 SEC Championship game.
Mathieu’s 67-yard punt-return touchdown, his second return touchdown in as many games, started LSU’s comeback from an early 10-0 deficit. In the second half he added a 47-yard return that was even more impressive than the first to set up another touchdown.
During his one season as LSU’s punt returner Mathieu averaged 17.2 yards (fourth in the nation) on 25 attempts with the two touchdowns. He also was a playmaking defensive back, earning All-American honors as a cornerback.
Mathieu’s relatively small stature means he projects to be an extra defensive back in the NFL. Those players usually are expendable on NFL rosters, but Mathieu’s ability as a punt returner figures to make him more valuable.
“I think teams are going to look at him as kind of a nickel (back) and a kick returner,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said.
Mathieu lasted only two seasons at LSU because the strikes against him in the school’s drug program added up.
Mathieu was suspended for LSU’s game against Auburn in 2011, reportedly after he failed a drug test. LSU kicked Mathieu off the team in August 2012 after he allegedly failed multiple drug tests.
A recent USA Today report said Mathieu failed as many as 10 drug tests while at LSU. The newspaper reported that Mathieu told an NFL assistant coach that he “stopped counting” after the 10th failed test.
LSU coach Les Miles didn’t close the door on Mathieu returning to the team, but that possibility ended when Baton Rouge police arrested Mathieu and charged him with marijuana possession.
That was the end of college football for the player nicknamed “Honey Badger” because of his colorful hair and tenacious playing style.
“I thought my bottom was when I got kicked out of school, but I think when I got arrested in October that was a different bottom,” Mathieu said. “So, I decided to go to a rehab (facility). This time the rehab was for Tyrann. I just wasn’t going to it for publicity or because my school told me to go. I actually wanted to get my problem corrected.”
Mathieu completed two weeks of in-patient treatment with former NBA player and rehab specialist John Lucas in Houston. He also received another two weeks of counseling and therapy.
Because of his off-field troubles Mathieu could provide the most value among return men later in the draft. But teams will have to decide if they believe Mathieu can stay out of trouble.
“I’m not totally asking them to trust me right now,” Mathieu said. “What I have asked is for them to give me an opportunity to play the game. I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on it, especially without football. It’s really given me a different outlook on life, and it’s just about being the right kind of person.”