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Roundtable: Mathieu's replacement, future

9/4/2012

GTN writers Gary Laney and David Helman look at some key issues facing LSU after its season-opening win over North Texas and looking forward to this week's game against Washington at Tiger Stadium.

After Odell Beckham Jr. looked so good returning punts against North Texas -- returning two for touchdowns, although one was called back by penalty -- would you say LSU has successfully replaced Tyrann Mathieu's return role?

Gary Laney: I wouldn't go that far, at least not yet.

Beckham has all the ingredients to be a spectacular punt returner. He's quick. He has vision. He has patience to let the blocking develop. He has instinct. I suspect he'll continue to thrive.

But here's the thing. LSU was playing North Texas, a Sun Belt Conference team. I've always noticed that when the big-time programs play the smaller ones, the talent gap is most apparent on special teams. It's not necessarily the kickers and return men -- you'll find plenty of quality players doing both at smaller conferences -- but the coverage teams and return teams tend to reflect the quality of depth in a program, an area where smaller conferences just can't compete with the powers.

That's not a knock on the outstanding work by Beckham on Saturday. But until he does something like run one back against a 10-1 Arkansas team, then run one back the next week in the SEC championship game -- like Mathieu did last season -- he isn't what Mathieu was.

DH: I've always been of the opinion that Mathieu's punt-return reputation is the product of selective memory. His two return touchdowns at the end of last season were special, to be sure. But in September and October, he was good -- not great.

Beckham probably won't be able to keep up his torrid pace, but he'll be serviceable. And as long as the Tigers are winning the field-position battle with their outstanding Aussie punters, the return game isn't make-or-break. I consider Mathieu replaced.

Speaking of Mathieu, he's supposed to start classes at LSU today. If he stays clean this year, would you take him back?

GL: Absolutely.

He has a problem that got him kicked off the team. He has taken steps to correct that problem by going to rehab and his family is willing to pay the price -- literally -- for his education, where he could have taken a scholarship somewhere else and played for a year before going pro.

He's doing this in a way that, to me, looks like the hard way. If he makes it through the year without problems, he'll have earned a second chance.

Now, if he comes back, does he return punts or does Beckham?

Let's save that one for later.

DH: Although I spent the last question dismissing Mathieu's impact on the team, there's no way the Tigers don't at least consider allowing him back into the fold -- and they should, if he holds up his end of the bargain.

This defense will lose a lot next year. Seniors including Lavar Edwards are gone, and the superstar junior class of Sam Montgomery, Barkevious Mingo, Eric Reid and Tharold Simon will likely get gutted by the NFL draft. LSU will need a playmaker of Mathieu's caliber to ease the transition. On top of that, it wouldn't be a bad story.

Washington's the only opponent LSU will face with similar resources until Auburn in a few weeks. What do you want to see most out of this game?

GL: I would like to see Washington be able to reasonably block LSU's defensive line enough that the Tigers' secondary gets tested. I'm not wishing any kind of failure on the vaunted LSU front four. I just hope UW doesn't have to do what North Texas did and go into a "max protect" mode to keep Mingo, Montgomery and the rest of the defense off of quarterback Keith Price.

I'd like to see four or five Pac-12 quality pass receivers out in the pattern against LSU's young defensive backs and linebackers with Price given a reasonable amount of time to make a throw. Then we can really see how the young defenders are doing.

DH: I'd like to see ington force LSU to use its actual playbook. The plethora of short routes and screens the Tigers leaned on Saturday night was pretty boring football, and it'd be fun to see the offense get creative. Unfortunately, this Washington defense seems to be a sieve against the run -- 484 rushing yards allowed to Baylor in last year's bowl game, 199 to San Diego State last week -- so the Tigers probably will have their way without getting too fancy.