- Associated Press - Friday, December 9, 2011

Down on the bayou, they’ve been saying, “Honey Badger for Heisman,” for months.

Still, the first time Tyrann Mathieu heard the nickname LSU fans had given him, he wasn’t all that thrilled.

“I didn’t like the `honey’ part,” recalled Mathieu, a star cornerback for the unbeaten No. 1 Tigers. “I didn’t think it was very macho at all.”

Mathieu’s discomfort with the nickname softened when members of LSU’s sports information staff showed him a popular YouTube video featuring the small, fearless honey badger wreaking havoc on the African savannah while a narrator humorously said things like, “Honey badger don’t care … he just takes what he wants.

The 5-foot-9, 180-pound Mathieu, who is considered small for a major college football player, was at once impressed with the ferocity of the little animal and also amused by the narration.

“I cried laughing,” he recalled, chuckling even at the memory of it.

“It’s a way to describe how he plays,” LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis said. “He’s not opposed to forcing his will on the field.”

Mathieu appreciates now how the catchy nickname drew more attention to the mayhem he caused opposing offenses, and to his highlight-reel exploits on special teams.

His penchant for big plays this season is a big reason why LSU will be meeting Alabama in New Orleans for the BCS national championship on Jan. 9. And along the way, he apparently caught the eyes of enough Heisman Trophy voters to get invited to New York this weekend as a finalist for the award along Alabama’s Trent Richardson, Stanford’s Andrew Luck, Baylor’s Robert Griffin III and Wisconsin’s Montee Ball.

“It’s obviously a prestigious award and it’s so great to be able to be there with the Andrew Lucks and the Trent Richardsons,” Mathieu said. “It definitely puts you in an elite group of people in college football.”

Chavis has been coaching defensive players in the Southeastern Conference _ a league known for producing NFL defensive stars _ since he joined Tennessee’s staff in 1989 and considers Mathieu a rare athlete.

“I’ve been in this business a long time. There’s been other guys similar, but he as much natural ability as anyone I’ve been around,” Chavis said. “I’d love to tell you it’s all coaching and we taught him everything he knows, but he’s been blessed with that ability.”

LSU has a long history of ball-hawking defenders dating back to the famed “Chinese Bandits” of the great LSU teams of the late 1950s. As recently as last season, the defensive backfield was led by cornerback and punt returner Patrick Peterson, now a rookie and emerging star with the Arizona Cardinals.

Although Peterson was not a Heisman finalist, he won the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s best defensive back and the Bednarik Award as the nation’s top defender. He was also a close friend and mentor to Mathieu, who took Peterson’s No. 7 jersey this season.

Peterson used to tell Mathieu, “Don’t try to be me, be better than me.”

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