10/11/2014 LSU football vs Florida

LSU sophomore defensive back Tre'Davious White (16) congratulates sophomore saftey Rickey Jefferson (29) for grabbing an interception late in the fourth quarter Saturday, October 11, 2014 during the Tigers' 30-27 victory in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

In most cases, the phrase “next man up” is the epitome of coach speak.

It’s usually a part of the rhetoric used to quell the panic around a key injury or explain away the effect of a suspension.

But throughout the Les Miles era, the Tigers’ defensive backs have used “next man up” as a mantra to continue the tradition of “Defensive Back University” by inspiring players to take advantage of every opportunity, no matter the circumstances.

This season is no different. With three-year starter Jalen Mills sidelined with a lower leg injury, junior safety Rickey Jefferson is being thrust into the starting lineup.

“It’s something I’m not trying to get too excited about,” Jefferson said. “I’m just trying to just do my job the best that I can. I’m blessed to be in this position. I’m sorry about what happened, but I’m looking forward to it.”

The tradition surrounding the “next man up” mentality has roots in one of the most famous secondaries in LSU history – 2011’s squad featuring Morris “Mo” Claiborne and Tyrann “Honey Badger” Mathieu.

Despite being overshadowed by Patrick Peterson in 2010, Claiborne stepped into the national spotlight in 2011. He led the country with 173 interception return yards, while tallying a team-leading six interceptions and tied for the team-lead with 12 passes deflections.

Claiborne, a Shreveport, Louisiana, native, followed in Peterson’s steps by becoming the second Tiger to win the Jim Thorpe Award for the best defensive consecutive back in the nation after Peterson took the honor in 2010.

While Claiborne led the Tigers in picks, Mathieu tied the Tigers’ single-season record for forced fumbles with five and tied Eric Reid for the team-lead in tackles with 76 in 2011.

As a pair, Claiborne and Mathieu were the first corners from the same school to both be named to The Associated Press’ All-America First Team.

“I like [Claiborne’s] ball skills, how he tracks the ball in midair on deep routes or slant,” said sophomore defensive back Ed Paris. “I like how Patrick Peterson covers when he’s in man-to-man positions. I like how Tyrann just flies all around when a running back is holding the ball and just strips it out.”

Although Claiborne and Mathieu stepping up after Peterson left for the NFL in 2011 reflects the “next man up” mentality, then-freshman Mills’ response when Mathieu was dismissed from the team in August 2012 represents how the unit embraces adversity.

When he first stepped onto campus, Mills said he didn’t expect to start with Mathieu slated as the starting nickel back heading into the season. But Mathieu was dismissed, and Mills was the next man up.

“It was hard,” Mills said. “The deal was Tyrann [was] the starting nickel at first. Then the deal happened with him, and then they moved me into that starting job. Those were some big shoes to fill, of course. Around that time, guys accepted me, and I accepted that role.”

Mills responded by recording 57 tackles, five pass break up and seven passes defended in 13 starts during 2012. Mills was named to the Freshman All-America First Team team by Sporting News.

In true “next man up” fashion, it is Mills who is now being replaced after starting every game during his first three seasons.

“It was tough,” said sophomore safety Jamal Adams. “We’re going to bounce back. [Mills is] going to be right in the mix with us in mid-season or whenever he comes back. You know the next man up. That’s how it’s always been at LSU.”

Although Mills is the only senior starter in the secondary, the Tigers have plenty of experience on the back end with Adams and junior defensive back Tre’Davious White, who have played in a combined 39 games with 26 starts.

With Jefferson taking over Mills’ safety spot, Adams is tasked with becoming the vocal leader in the secondary.

“I took on a little bit more [of a] role of being vocal [in the first practice after Mills’ injury],” Adams said. “When Jalen was here, he was helping that side, and I was focusing on that one. When I was out there in the second practice, I was trying to be more vocal to the whole entire secondary and defense.”

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