LSU replaces Mathieu with freshman

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Locally, anybody paying attention saw it coming. Nationally, however, it was a "wow" moment.

LSU's first game week depth chart released Monday for the season opener against North Texas revealed it would replace its dismissed Heisman Trophy finalist, Tyrann Mathieu, with true freshman Jalen Mills.

How did a program so deep with secondary talent -- it's produced back-to-back cornerbacks drafted early in the first round -- come to this?

Part of it is attrition. Some of it is that Mills has just been that good, perhaps better than most expected.

A somewhat unheralded recruit out of DeSoto High in suburban Dallas, Mills won an August camp staredown with redshirt freshman Jalen Collins, who came out of the spring as LSU's third cornerback and, thus, the likely choice to start after Mathieu was dismissed from the team Aug. 10 after violating the program's substance abuse policy. Mills, still a high school student when Collins emerged from spring, made up a lot of ground in his first August camp.

The Tigers' other starting cornerback, Tharold Simon, let the cat out of the bag a couple of days earlier.

"Jalen Mills is stepping up really good," Simon said Friday. "Jalen Collins stepped up too, but he has more work to do."

Neither has played a down of college football and Mills did not have even the luxury of a previous camp. Should this concern LSU fans?

Perhaps, but there is also reason for excitement.

Certainly, LSU lost some quality players at corner, and not just Mathieu. Morris Claiborne was the No. 6 overall pick in the NFL draft by the Dallas Cowboys and Ron Brooks, used sparingly as a dime back, was selected in the fourth round by the Buffalo Bills.

But when Collins became the third cornerback in the spring, it wasn't by default. Several veteran defensive backs -- Sam Gibson, Ronnie Vinson and David Jenkins, were also in the mix. Collins emerged in that competition and the other three opted to leave LSU.

By beating out Collins, Mills ostensibly won more than just a one-on-one competition, given who Collins beat out in the spring. The pair also separated themselves from two other true freshmen in camp, Derrick Raymond and Dwayne Thomas. LSU also moved wide receiver Kavahra Holmes over to defense to solidify depth.

Simon has seemed impressed by Mills and Collins. So is star free safety Eric Reid, who said that while he still makes sure whichever freshman corner is out there with him understands the play call and is in the right position, once the ball is snapped, he doesn't worry about them.

"Then it just becomes playing football," Reid said, "and both of them are good football players."

LSU coach Les Miles said that despite the outcome of the August competition, both Jalens will play.

"I think Mills and Collins [will] both play a lot of football," Miles said during his weekly Monday news conference. "I think both guys can play. What I expect from them is to just play like they've always played."

They have to grow up fast.

North Texas will surely challenge the two freshmen while avoiding Simon, whose is emerging as a star in the Tigers secondary even before Mathieu was dismissed.

If the Eagles will test them, Week 2 opponent Washington, with 3,000-yard passer Keith Price, will likely try to completely exploit them. Steve Sarkisian's Huskies offense piled up 478 yards on LSU in the Tigers' 31-23 win in Seattle in 2009 when the Huskies had Jake Locker and LSU's defense featured Patrick Peterson.

It's a lot for a true freshman to take in, but one person you won't hear talk about it is Mills. It's LSU policy for true freshmen to be off limits to media.

He's too young to face the media, but plenty old enough to stare down receivers from Washington, Alabama, Florida and Arkansas. Is he mature enough to handle that?

LSU hopes so.