INDIANAPOLIS -- To a degree, Tyrann Mathieu and Da'Rick Rogers owe Manti Te'o a debt of gratitude. Without the Te'o sideshow dominating a good bit of the attention this weekend at the NFL Scouting Combine, Mathieu and Rogers may have been two of the poster children in this year's pre-draft character-issue debate.
They are a matched pair in some ways: Two talented but troubled former SEC play-making stars who took different paths due to football banishment last season, but wound up here in Indianapolis all the same. Now they're hoping to convince league scouts that they've changed, matured and can be trusted to seize the NFL opportunity that once looked to be a given.
Mathieu, the former LSU cornerback of popular "Honey Badger'' fame and 2011 Heisman hopes, was dismissed from the Tigers last August due to substance abuse issues that prompted a month-long stay in drug rehabilitation. He sat out the 2012 season, but re-enrolled at LSU for the fall semester, only to be arrested on a marijuana possession charge in late October. Never considered an elite NFL prospect to begin with, Mathieu is projected to last at least until the fourth round, but he's at the combine trying to resurrect his football fortunes.
Rogers has his own tale of taking a circuitous path to this year's combine. The former University of Tennessee receiver was given an indefinite suspension by the Vols after failing a third drug test for marijuana. Rather than sit out in 2012, Rogers transferred to Tennessee Tech, an FCS division school where he at times hung up ridiculous numbers against that level of competition (18 catches for 303 yards and two touchdowns against Southeast Missouri State). Rogers was supposed to be the SEC's top returning receiver in 2012 after his 1,040 yards and nine touchdowns for the Vols in 2011, and Mathieu was the SEC's Defensive Player of the year that same season. But now they're just two more hopefuls among the 330-plus players trying to stand out in Indianapolis.
Mathieu spoke Sunday about the challenge he faces in rebuilding his career after a year away from the game, knowing that he has more questions to answer off the field than on it.
"I'm not totally asking them to trust me right now, but I am asking for them to give me an opportunity to play the game again,'' he said, meeting the media at Lucas Oil Stadium. "I've had a lot of time to reflect on it, especially without football. It's really given me a different outlook on life and really being the right kind of person. I hold myself accountable for everything I've done this past year. It's been tough, but at the end of the day, I want them to know I'm a football player. I want to be a great teammate, and I want to be the same leader on the field that I know I can be off the field.''
Mathieu has been working out in preparation for the combine with former LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson, the Arizona Cardinals standout who shares an agent with Mathieu. Peterson has taken an active role in helping his ex-teammate rehabilitate his name and game. But Mathieu said a second stint in drug rehabilitation -- this one after his late October arrest -- proved pivotal in convincing him he was already down to his last chance in football.
"I thought my bottom was when I got kicked out of school, but I think when I got arrested in October, that was a different bottom,'' he said. "I decided to go to a rehab, but this time, the rehab was for Tyrann. I just wasn't going to it for publicity or because my school told me to go. I actually wanted to get my problem corrected.
"I know what it's like to not have football, and not to be the center of attention, and I know what it's like to be humiliated. To go back down that road? Not a chance in this world. Not a chance in my lifetime again. But every day is a process. I'm not saying I'm totally there. But I'm taking strides every day to be the best person Tyrann can be.''
Mathieu said he has not used illegal drugs since his October arrest in Baton Rouge, and that he has been as upfront as possible with NFL teams as they interview him and explore his background.
"My best friend right now is honesty,'' he said. "I try to be as open as possible, because I'm trying to rebuild my [reputation]. I want them to trust me. They pretty much know everything.
"All the things I put before football, is not really fun any more without football. Once I get football back in my life, I'm going to approach things a bit differently, and hopefully have a better outcome.''
Ask him what happened to him at LSU, and Mathieu doesn't mince words. "Half of it is you actually start believing the hype,'' he said. "You actually start believing the newspaper clippings. And the other half is, 'Hey, I'm young and I want to have some fun.' But at the end of the day I have to be a different kind of person.''
Rogers had a very similar tale of contrition to tell here at the combine. Meeting with the media on Friday afternoon, he detailed how his immaturity and attitude issues were at the root of his undoing at Tennessee, and how humbling it was to go from starring in the premier conference in college football to largely off the radar screen at Tennessee Tech.
"It's simple, immaturity,'' said Rogers, when asked to explain his dismissal from the Vols. "I had to take full responsibility, look in the mirror at who I was and what I was doing wrong. I did those things when I went to Tennessee Tech and it humbled me a lot. I'm still working on those things. It's a work in progress.
"I play with an edge, and I had to learn to control that edge off the field also. I had to learn how to fix my flaws, and life got easier.''
Listening to Mathieu and Rogers, I couldn't help but think back to the Sunday of last year's combine, when another onetime SEC standout -- ex-Gator-turned-North Alabama cornerback Janoris Jenkins -- held a memorable interview session with the media, detailing his own litany of off-field missteps and mistakes that led to him being banished from one of college football's glamor programs. Jenkins and his track record of three arrests, one failed drug test, one bar fight and fathering four children with three women raised perhaps the mother of all red flags.
But still, Jenkins was able to convince the Rams to invest a second-round pick on his potential last April, and he rewarded them with a stellar rookie season, returning three interceptions and a fumble for a league-best four return touchdowns. I asked both Mathieu and Rogers if Jenkins' example provided them with any inspiration of what can be overcome, providing their playing talent is deemed worth the risk?
"Definitely, because he had a good rookie year and it just gives you hope,'' said Rogers, one of the bigger, more physical receivers in the draft at 6-2 1/2, 217 pounds. "It means it is possible no matter where you get drafted. All you have to do is go in and work hard and teams will recognize if you are maturing and doing the right thing.''
Rogers even understands that he and Mathieu are linked by the circumstances of their collegiate careers gone awry. They play opposite sides of the ball, but have been forced to travel basically the same narrow path to get their NFL opportunity. They can't afford another significant mistake, or they'll be forever out of chances when it comes to football.
"I look at his situation and I know he has his own things going on,'' Rogers said of Mathieu. "He has his own struggles, and is getting better with those. But I just see it as the same thing. Make a mistake, and come back from it. You have to mature and move on from it.''
For Mathieu, the challenge isn't simply one of getting his personal life in order. Despite his strong record of playmaking in college, there are questions about his NFL skill set. His height (he measured in at 5-8 3/4 and 186 pounds at the combine) is far from ideal at cornerback, and he's not considered fast by NFL defensive back standards. Some draft analysts project him to run his 40 in the high 4.5's on Tuesday, but Mathieu said Sunday he has been clocked in the 4.4's in his workouts with Peterson, and a faster than expected time will undoubtedly ease concerns about his NFL viability.
"Tyrann Mathieu is a really interesting wildcard this weekend,'' NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said last week. "My gut tells me he's a better football player than he is an athlete. He's small. I'm not sure he's going to run real well. so I think teams are going to look at him as kind of a nickel (cornerback) and a kick returner. I don't think he's going to run better than 4.5 or 4.55. If he does, that will help him. Most teams I've talked to have him in the fourth round because they don't think he's very big and he's not going to run very fast, and he's had off-the-field issues. That could change with a good time, but he's an intriguing guy.''
Mathieu is convinced it will change, because he'll run faster than anticipated, because he's got a body of work on film to show the league, and because he'll convince NFL front office members that his mistakes have been learned from. He is determined to convince us that his year away from the game was a positive, not a negative that will limit his future.
"My football skills speak for themselves,'' he said. "I don't think I've lost a step. But I'm not totally focused on football right now. It's more about the person and getting the things I've done wrong corrected. But I want to show everybody I'm a true athlete. They can watch a whole lot of film on me. I make plays, and height has very little to do with playing the game of football.''
Mathieu plays an aggressive and attacking style of coverage, and at LSU he had a knack for being a ballhawk and making game-changing plays. He is seen as a nice fit at slot cornerback, or perhaps even safety in the NFL, saying he models his game after both Baltimore's Ed Reed and Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu. Playing outside cornerback in the league at his height might be difficult, but he could counter that perception by pointing out veteran NFL cornerbacks like Cortland Finnegan (5-10, 188) and Antoine Winfield (5-9, 190) have prospered for years with similar stature.
Rogers doesn't have any such height issues. He has been compared to Falcons receiver Julio Jones in terms of his size and body type, and his blend of physicality, ball skills and ability to break tackles and run after the catch fits with what league scouts look for at receiver these days. Rogers ran a pair of 40's that were clocked at 4.44 and 4.56 on Sunday, but most analysts expect him to be selected in the second or third round come April, and do not have him in the first-round discussion. Once considered one of the nation's elite receiving prospects coming out of high school, tRogers had long dreamed he'd go higher.
"It's frustrating, but I did it to myself,'' he said of his draft status. "I realize how hard I have to work now that I am behind the 8-ball. It's going to make me work that much harder.''
Both Mathieu and Rogers have much work remaining to restore their reputations and put their football careers back on the track for which they once seemed destined. There's still time to overcome their past mistakes, but from here on out, the NFL will be watching and there's little or no room for error.