Editor’s note: SDS is ranking the 25 best SEC players — at any position — of the last decade. LSU defensive back Tyrann Mathieu is next up in a 25-part daily series.


Before Tyrann Mathieu morphed into the Honey Badger, he emerged from a hardscrabble, unstable childhood in New Orleans to become a four-star high school cornerback and track standout.

Still, even as he forced three fumbles, made 3.5 sacks and one interception during his true freshman season as the team’s nickelback, he wasn’t a rarity by LSU standards. Until that season’s Cotton Bowl.

In arguably the best bowl performance by a freshman in SEC history (no offense to Leonard Fournette or Nick Chubb this year), Mathieu tortured Texas A&M in a 41-24 win.

Mathieu sacked Ryan Tannehill in the first quarter, forcing a fumble that the Aggies recovered. He intercepted a Tannehill pass in the fourth quarter, thwarting an A&M comeback attempt. Then he forced and recovered a fumble in the backfield with a little more than three minutes left. Mathieu also made seven tackles and broke up a pass, earning defensive MVP honors.

Listed at 5-foot-9 and 175 pounds, soon the nation knew him as Honey Badger, an inexplicable thumper with bleached-blonde mohawk who seemed to sabotage opposing offenses every week with a I’m-having-a-blast contagious swagger.

In 2011, Mathieu forced six fumbles, bringing his career total to 11, tying him for seventh in NCAA history despite playing just two seasons. He recovered five fumbles and also intercepted two passes. He led the team in tackles with 76 — a remarkable feat for a cornerback — and broke up nine passes. His 15.6 yards per punt return ranked fourth in the country and earned him All-American honors from CBS Sports, Rivals and Sports Illustrated as a return specialist.

He returned two fumbles and two punts for touchdowns, including a 62-yard punt for a touchdown against Georgia in the SEC championship. The MVP of the game, which LSU won 42-10, he also recovered a fumble and returned another punt 47 yards, both of which set up touchdowns, turning a 10-7 deficit into a 21-10 lead with Mathieu directly or indirectly responsible for all three scores.

A Heisman finalist as a cornerback, Mathieu was a national superstar and maybe the biggest returning name in the SEC and all of college football heading into the offseason, along with Alabama QB AJ McCarron. But after a one-game drug-related suspension in ’11, the bottom fell out before the 2012 season.

Reportedly due to failing multiple drug tests, LSU dismissed Mathieu from the team in August. He entered a drug rehabilitation program and then re-enrolled at LSU, expressing interest in playing for the Tigers again in 2013, but got arrested on Oct. 25 for possession of marijuana.

He entered the NFL draft instead, explaining to teams that his sudden fame contributed to a marijuana addiction. Despite concerns about how his small stature and frame would translate to the NFL and major off-field concerns, the Arizona Cardinals re-united him with former LSU teammate Patrick Peterson.

In two NFL seasons, Mathieu has played in 26 games, starting 17. He recently penned a first-person account of the last few years of his life for Bleacher Report, proclaiming he’ll soon be a Top 5 playmaker in the NFL. He hasn’t faced any legal trouble either, and seems to be moving in a good direction with his life.

LSU fans have to lament his career cut short, but still, in a Les Miles era filled with outstanding defensive players, Mathieu was the biggest playmaker of all, someone who could singlehandedly dominate a game.

Smart football people often proclaim that to really learn things, you have to take your eyes off the ball. But in Mathieu’s case, if you want to find him, following the ball is a great place to start. In the SEC, he hit more like a linebacker, and once he secured the ball, good luck tackling him before he reached the end zone. Watching him at the height of his LSU career was pure joy.

Career numbers: Despite playing in just 26 games with only 14 total starts, Mathieu created 14 turnovers and scored four touchdowns.

Individual superlatives: 2010 — Freshman All-American, Cotton Bowl most outstanding player; 2011 — Chuck Bednarik Award winner, SEC Defensive Player of the Year, consensus All-American, first-team All-SEC, Heisman finalist.

NFL draft: No. 69 overall (third round) to the Arizona Cardinals in 2013.

Defining moment: His SEC championship performance against Georgia in 2011.