BCS National Championship: A Closer Look at LSU's Mo Claiborne

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“Morris Claiborne and Tyrann Mathieu are both phenomenal cornerbacks and deserving of All-American status. It was the first time in the history of the AP that cornerbacks of the same team made First-Team All-American. A reporter asked Claiborne who he would rather have between himself & Tyrann earlier this year, and Mo cleverly answered it like this with a smile… If I had to choose, I would pick both.” – Carter Bryant

That humility is what makes Claiborne different from other athletes. His performance on the football field is what makes him stand out from other players.

Morris Claiborne grew up in Shreveport and attended Fair Park High School where he was a member of the track and field team, played basketball (earning All-State honors his sophomore year), baseball, and most notably, football.  After his freshman year, Lent Bursey took over as the head football coach, and Claiborne quickly found a home at wide receiver where he remained for two years.

Until that time, Claiborne had only been seriously recruited by Nebraska, Texas A & M and Louisiana Tech, but LSU had shown some interest inviting him to Junior Day. In July, Claiborne returned to Baton Rouge to attend football camp, where the coaches lined him up at both receiver and defensive back.

Described as a fierce competitor, Claiborne was willing to do whatever it took to win, often playing multiple positions in order to do so. His athleticism, work ethic, and ability to be coached made him a standout at wide receiver, quarterback, running back and defensive back. It was in his senior year that his quiet leadership abilities shone through. Bursey wanted to upgrade his offensive firepower, and turned to Claiborne to quarterback his spread offense.

As the Indian’s signal caller, Claiborne helped Fair Park reach the Class 4A state playoffs accounting for more than 2,000 yards of offense and 30 touchdowns. In his first and only year as a quarterback, Claiborne passed for 1009 yards and 14 TDs, while rushing for 1,023 yards and 16 scores.

Growing up in Louisiana and playing at a high school with ties to LSU, it is not a stretch that is where Morris wanted to be. As time passed and the recruiters from other universities kept calling, Claiborne remained patient throughout much of the season waiting for an offer from Les Miles. When the offer from LSU finally came and relief set in, he remained thoughtful about his decision. A couple of weeks later, he ultimately chose to be a Tiger on November 11, 2008.

Recruited as an ATH, Morris arrived on campus still unsure of what position he would be playing. He began fall camp as a receiver, and moved to cornerback a week into fall drills. As a true freshman, he found himself as the number two right corner behind Patrick Peterson. Although he did not start a game that campaign, he played in seven contests recording seven tackles.

“Claiborne, like Mathieu, attributes much of his learning process and success as a cornerback to Patrick Peterson. Claiborne told me he speaks with Peterson weekly. When Claiborne was named as a Thorpe finalist weeks ago, he said he would love to keep the award in Baton Rouge for two straight years, as Peterson won the award the year before. Claiborne was victorious. With Mathieu’s help, the Bednarik Award will stay in the Red Stick for another season as well.” – Carter Bryant

With the guidance from Peterson, hard work, and great coaching, Claiborne was moved to left corner to start opposite his player-mentor in the beginning of the 2010 campaign.  Claiborne had a break-out season, but was often overshadowed by the presence of Peterson, who had emerged as one of the best defensive players and the best defensive back in the country. In just his second year as a corner, Claiborne started 12 games, leading the team with 11 passes defended and five interceptions. He was second on the squad with six pass break ups and recorded 37 total tackles (29 solo). He was named as a second-team All-SEC selection by the Associated Press and the league’s coaches.

Last season a true freshman, Tyrann Mathieu, burst onto the scene in Baton Rouge. Mathieu only started one game, replacing Claiborne at left corner for UL-M, but played in 12 games as a reserve CB and as the nickel back, making an immediate impact. Mathieu was first in the SEC and fifth nationally with five forced fumbles and tied for first in the conference in fumble recoveries with three and led the Tigers with seven pass breakups.  After racking up seven tackles, one tackle for loss, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, one interception, one sack and one pass breakup, Mathieu was named the Cotton Bowl’s Defensive Most Outstanding Player.

Claiborne remained humble and always supportive, never fazed by the attention his teammates received. He continued to work hard on and off the field, knowing he had big shoes to fill with Peterson now in the NFL.

In the 2011 season opener against Oregon, Mathieu recorded 10 total tackles, two pass break ups, and one fumble recovery for a touchdown.  His celebrity soared after a Youtube video was made giving him the nickname “Honey Badger” and a T-shirt depicting a honey badger in a Heisman pose soon followed.  He has a bold, boisterous, magnetic personality that aided his stardom. His performances on the grid iron made him an early Heisman hopeful and one of the best defensive backs in the country.

Meanwhile, Claiborne’s star power is reserved for Saturdays. He returned 17 kickoffs for 459 yards and one touchdown. He is tied for sixth most in the nation with six interceptions, one returned for a score. He is eighth on the team in total tackles with 46. But it isn’t numbers or flashy plays that made him the 2011 Jim Thorpe Award winner or a consensus All-American. It is his dedication to be the best corner back in the nation, and the detail he puts into accomplishing it.

“Before we start comparing the two, it’s important to note both of these players are aided by a secondary, much less a defense, filled with talent. Brandon TaylorEric ReidRon BrooksTharold Simon and other unsung heroes in the defensive backfield have been the glue behind Claiborne and Mathieu’s success. Their athletic abilities allow them to make big plays on the field, but they never fail to mention the genius of defensive coordinator John “Chief” Chavis and the rest of the coaching staff.

It doesn’t take a genius to see the difference between the two playmakers. Claiborne is a more of a traditional, every-down corner who plays a majority of his snaps on the outside against the team’s best or second best receiver. Mathieu plays all over the field and is most effective playing a Nickel or Dime back when LSU lines up in a Nickel (5-DB) or “Mustang” (3-DL, 2-LB and 6-DB) package. Mathieu’s versatility as a punt returner was on full display against Arkansas and Georgia. Claiborne also showed his hand in the return game on a kickoff return for a touchdown against West Virginia earlier this season.

It’s tough to compare the two. Mathieu is a player that we have never seen before. His innovation on the field is masterful and it’s tough to argue anybody as a better “nose for the football” than “The Honey Badger,” thus making him the most productive and explosive player on defense this year in college football. But Mathieu can also be viewed as a system player playing in a defense suited to his capabilities. Claiborne is the shutdown corner whose abilities can be translated in any defense, which makes him a first round lock for next year’s NFL Draft.

Claiborne is an affable personality who struggles keeping a smile off his face. In an interview I had earlier this year with him, he shared with me his desire to score a touchdown after an interception. This interview was after his spectacular pick versus Tennessee, when he almost went coast to coast on a touchdown but was tackled inside the Vols red zone. He would finally get his wish with a touchdown against Georgia in the SEC Championship Game. He was able to avoid being tackled by quarterback Aaron Murray in the process. He said while laughing that his teammates would have always reminded him everyday he was tackled by a quarterback if Murray had brought him down.

From watching Claiborne all season long, his best trait is his ability to locate the football when it’s in the air. Multiple media members have said it always seems like the players for LSU “run better routes” than the receivers do. When I asked Claiborne about that, he said the team watches hours of film. They usually see plays before they happen. But Mo’s phenomenal technique is what makes him special. He has the uncanny ability to see the football quickly, rise up and catch the ball (what coaches like to call) “at its highest point.”

It is not often you see opposing receivers making deep explosive plays on the LSU secondary, especially when receivers are running “fly” patterns. This is also known as a “go route,” when a receiver runs in a straight line vertically trying to “burn” the defensive back. Claiborne has been dominant versus this type of pattern (as you saw versus Tennessee) and has only been blatantly beat deep once all year (Florida’s Dubose pulled him down while the football was in the air). Claiborne made a similar play versus Georgia, except that time he just batted the ball away. Claiborne’s counterpart Simon was tested on the same play later in the game and was able to come down with an interception, like he did against Oregon.

I asked Claiborne after the SEC Championship why he and Simon have been fantastic against the deep ball this year. He said body position is key. He compared it to “boxing out” an opponent for a rebound in basketball. Both guys were high school basketball superstars and many consider Claiborne as the best basketball player on the team. He said while the ball is in the air, the unit as a whole has enough speed to locate where the receiver is and then take away his path to the football. They use the sideline as a weapon as they lower the amount of real estate the receiver has to work with. Claiborne said he feels if it’s a jump ball, he is athletic enough to win the fight for the football every time.

What makes Claiborne, and the LSU secondary as a whole, superb is they have no blatant weaknesses. They all tackle well (top three tacklers are members of the secondary), disguise blitzes to perfection and lock down their receivers with a pass rush that has been off and on this year (watch the Alabama film). But if they defeat Crimson Tide again on January 9th, they can become legendary because of their ability to make plays when the lights are the brightest. They are the best unit on the best team in football. Claiborne is much like his teammates with his positive attitude and high football IQ.

When a unit is so deep and so good, any injury (or being “withheld from play”) doesn’t prevent the unit from succeeding. But Claiborne is the most valuable asset in the defensive backfield. He has the quiet leadership qualities of a Derek Jeter and the cover-corner potential of a Darrelle Revis. The guy simply shuts down his third of the gridiron when he is on the field. He has a bright future beyond the purple and gold playing on Sundays and will be licking his chops at the chance of making another game-changing play versus Alabama, this time for all the marbles.” – Carter Bryant

Morris Claiborne hasn’t officially declared for the 2012 NFL draft, but he is widely expected to after the national championship game. Just like his predecessor, he is projected to be a high-first round pick possibly taken within the first five selections.

He is dedicated. He is hard working. He is a competitor. He is the best cornerback in college football. He is on the verge of a national championship.

He plays with a quiet confidence, steadfast determination, and fantastic concentration. He doesn’t need to tell you he is a star, he shows you. And then he smiles.

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  • In October, with the assistance of Carter Bryant, Sports Director at 91.1 KLSU, Dory LeBlanc took a look an In Focus look at LSU’s Tyrann Mathieu. With LSU playing against Alabama for the national championship just around the corner, they collaborated once again to bring you an In Focus look at another LSU CB, Mo Claiborne.

Dory LeBlanc, covers Gator sports for Gators First and Not just a college sports enthusiast, Dory is also a fan of NFL, NHL, NBA, and MLB. Born outside Philly, she moved to Tampa, and now resides in Illinois, giving her a broad perspective on the sporting world. You can follow Dory on twitter @DoryLeBlanc