Tennessee Stat Book
The best way to appreciate No. 1 LSU's depth of talent is to look around the corner.
Last year about this time, the Tigers were touting cornerback Patrick Peterson for the Heisman Trophy. He didn't come close to the Heisman, but he was a first-round draft pick of the Arizona Cardinals for whom he opened the season with a game-winning punt return for a touchdown.
So how did LSU manage to replace college football's premier cornerback?
Answer: With more productive players.
As good as Peterson was, the Tigers are now better fortified on the corner than they were last season, thanks to starters Morris Claiborne and Tyrann Mathieu, and backup Tharold Simon. They will pose huge problems for Tennessee's injury-depleted passing attack this Saturday in Neyland Stadium.
Claiborne made second-team All-SEC last year as a sophomore and is being projected prominently in the next NFL draft. A former high school quarterback and state-champion sprinter, he has succeeded Peterson as a kick returner with 12 returns for a 29.1-yard average, which ranks second in the conference and includes a 99-yard return for a touchdown.
He's the second-best playmaker in the LSU secondary.
LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis, who previously coached at UT, hasn't had a playmaker like Mathieu since Tennessee linebacker Al
Wilson was knocking the ball loose from any Gator he could reach in the 1998 UT-Florida game. And Mathieu does it almost every game.
In 19 career games, the 5-foot-9 sophomore has forced nine fumbles and recovered six, two of which he has returned for touchdowns this season.
He's as apt to spike the ball from a ball-carrier as pry it from his grasp. If it's not surgically attached, you're at risk.
Mathieu leads the conference in forced fumbles and recoveries. He also leads his team in tackles and punt returns.
"He's what I call a baller," Dooley said. "They've got that something that they know how to impact a game.
"Probably half the time he's done it, the coach doesn't even know what he's doing. He sees it, triggers and creates."
LSU's depth of talent is hardly limited to cornerback. Injuries have forced it to use four different offensive line combinations. It still rushed for 238 yards in a 41-11 rout of the Gators on Saturday.
The running game hasn't missed Stevan Ridley, who led LSU with 1,147 yards rushing last season and now plays for the New England Patriots. His departure created an opening for sophomore Spencer Ware, who seemingly runs as hard as Ridley, only faster. Behind him are a couple of other sophomores, Will Ford and Alfred Blue, run-challenged Tennessee would love to have. And the Tigers also are trying to find carries for prize freshman Terrence Magee, who, like Ware, was a high school quarterback.
The depth reflects the relentless recruiting of Les Miles, who has picked up where his predecessor, Nick Saban, left off. And it's made to order for Chavis.
Nebraska coach Bo Pelini liked sticking with his starters when he ran LSU's defense during its 2007 national championship season. Chavis uses his bench, just as he did at UT, where he once had John Henderson and Albert Haynesworth in reserve. Now, he has freshman tackle Anthony Johnson, a consensus high school All-American who has 2.5 tackles for loss despite playing sparingly.
"Their d-line, they roll them in," Dooley said. "You can't tell their 1's from the 2's from the 3's."
But if you make it past LSU's deep front line, your troubles are only beginning. Somewhere, Mathieu will be lurking.
And he won't just be looking to make a tackle.