Countdown to kickoff: Many happy returns


GeauxTigerNation writers David Helman and Gary Laney break down the competitions, issues and talking points of LSU's August camp. Players report to campus Aug. 1 and we'll have a preview segment every weekday in July leading up to the day the players report:

If the Honey Badger took what he wanted on defense last year, he was absolutely greedy when he touched the ball on a punt return.

In 27 returns, Tyrann Mathieu took two back for touchdowns, including one of 92 yards. He averaged 15.6 yards a return and earned first-team all-American honors as a return specialist. It was the main reason why he went from being just a great defensive back -- the Thorpe Award winner -- to a Heisman Trophy finalist.

He enters this season as the top return specialist in the SEC, according to our SEC Blog.

The only question now is will perhaps the most dynamic athlete in college football get to also return kickoffs?

If you're surprised that he doesn't already fill that role, you shouldn't be. LSU has a recent history of dangerous kick returners that have forced other stellar athletes to wait their turn.

Patrick Peterson didn't emerge as a returns threat until his final year at LSU -- in fact, he never returned a kick or a punt until his last year when he emerged as one of the nation's best return men (29.1 yards per kick return, 16.1 yards per punt return). That's because the role went to Trindon Holliday, who at the time was the fastest player ever to play college football.

While Mathieu returned punts, LSU went with Morris Claiborne, the eventual No. 6 overall pick in the NFL draft by the Cowboys, on kickoffs.

As good as Mathieu was, there simply plenty of other viable options and there has been in recent years.

LSU has averaged double-digit return yards on punt returns for four straight years and more than 20 yards a kick return the last two years, a number sometimes compromised by opponents unwillingness to kick deep at times. LSU always seems to have a guy.

That remains true this year.

One thing LSU will want is to find a way to get Russell Shepard more touches. Kickoff returns would seem to be an obvious way to accomplish that. Plus, Odell Beckham, Jr. looked good in limited opportunities in both punt and kick returns. The Tigers enjoy plenty of depth at running back and defensive back that could yield other return candidates. The most likely next option in the return game is another receiver, Jarvis Landry.

Shepard will likely be the main option, at least to start the season, which brings up another fact that one might not have suspected.

The former Parade all-American who has yet to live up to his potential as a wide receiver has also only returned two kickoffs in his LSU career. As fast as he is, like a lot of other athletes, he's had to wait his turn.

It's his time now and he has plenty of tough acts to follow. And if he can't continue the tradition, there are plenty of others, including a Heisman Trophy finalist, who might want their shot too.