"This is LSU. The next person should be able to step up and do the same thing as the person we lost," says LSU junior defensive back Tharold Simon on life without Tyrann Mathieu. "We still have to go out and play our best football. We can't worry about that."
Replacing a Heisman Trophy finalist and the Tigers' most dynamic play-maker from a season ago is perhaps easier said than done. But the 6'3, 187 pound Simon clearly isn't down or afraid about life after "The Honey Badger."
"We're still trying to get to Miami," the Eunice, Louisiana says of this year's BCS national championship location, "We're still practicing hard, going hard every day."
A slew of younger defensive backs have suddenly been thrown into the spotlight, as head coach Les Miles looks for a replacement at cornerback. Redshirt freshman Jalen Collins and true freshman Jalen Mills are getting plenty of talk (practices have been closed to the media for a week), while other Tigers like true freshmen Derrick Raymond and Dwayne Thomas hope to have their names called.
"I see a lot of them stepping up. They are working hard. They're still young right now. The biggest challenge for them is learning the plays and the technique. Once they get that, we'll be really good back there. Jalen Collins has a lot of height (listed at 6'1). He's physical too. Jalen Mills, I like him a lot. He's very physical on the line. The thing with him…he just needs to keep working on his technique. All of the freshman corners are making plays."
The LSU defense appeared to perform relatively well in the Tigers' first scrimmage of fall camp last Saturday, as new quarterback Zach Mettenberger hit only half of his 30 pass attempts and was intercepted once. Simon says the big guys upfront deserve much of that credit.
"Our defensive line gave us a lot of help. We were only covering for three seconds or so and they were back there. I was the only junior playing. The rest were young guys, because Eric Reid was at a funeral."
Simon also says that no matter how much practice time you get, nothing can truly prepare players for game action, until they're actually on the field.
"You're going to be nervous and have a ton of butterflies. Especially for the freshmen. You're not used to playing in front of 92,000, with another million watching on TV. That is running through your head…you don't want to mess up. But if you try to make too big of a play, that's exactly what you'll do."
Simon jokes that he played one play versus North Carolina in the season opener of 2010, but was immediately yanked out of the game by the coaching staff. He says he didn't see game action again until the Alabama contest played in early November. But after making 42 tackles and intercepting two passes last season as a sophomore, he's clearly being looked to now as a defensive leader. Especially after the Tyrann Mathieu suspension and Mo Claiborne being taken in the first round of the NFL Draft by the Dallas Cowboys.
"A lot of the younger players look up to me. They come to me with questions. I talk to them in the film room and help correct their mistakes. I feel a lot more leadership."
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