A season ago, it was Jim Thorpe award winner Patrick Peterson who made all the headlines while Claiborne snagged a team-high five interceptions.
This season, Tyrann Matheiu, the “honey badger,” has been the face of No. 1 LSU’s big-play defense.
Claiborne, meanwhile, has no catchy nickname but is on track to finish with the team-lead in interceptions again. He has matched last season’s total of five with the SEC title game against Georgia on Saturday and a bowl game — likely the BCS title game — still to play.
“I feel like I’ve been flying under the radar since high school,” Claiborne said. “If somebody was to have a conversation and the conversation was about me, I was always the type to try to change the subject because I can’t stand all that attention.”
Claiborne, a junior who came to LSU thinking he’d play receiver, has become so accomplished at defensive back that he probably won’t even return to the Tigers for his senior year. A Thorpe award finalist himself this season, he is widely projected to be a first-round draft choice in the NFL next spring, should he decide to turn pro.
“It’s amazing, but that’s the type of thing you work for. You work to put yourself in those types of positions,” Claiborne said this week, stopping short of saying whether he would in fact enter the draft. “I can’t look at it right now, because I’ve got things to do here.”
LSU is 12-0 for the first time, and Claiborne is a big reason why. His biggest play might have been his leaping, one-handed interception and 33-yard return in the fourth quarter at Alabama, which allowed LSU to pull into a 6-6 tie before pulling out a 9-6 win in overtime.
His special teams play has been sensational at times as well. His 99-yard touchdown on a kickoff return at West Virginia was a momentum-changing play after the Mountaineers had pulled as close as 27-21.
Last week in a crucial game against Arkansas, his interception of SEC-leading passer Tyler Wilson helped LSU put the Razorbacks away in the second half.
“He’ll be remembered as one of the best DBs to come from LSU,” senior safety Brandon Taylor said. “He’s a dynamic player. He grasped the concept of the defense very fast ... and he’ll be a top 10 pick in the draft.”
Claiborne was an all-around athlete in Fair Park High School in Shreveport, playing basketball and running track. He is widely considered by LSU teammates to be the best basketball player on the football team. He is also blazing fast, having won the Class 4A state title in the 100-meters with a time of 10.76.
Claiborne said he played sports because he liked them, but never really thought about how he could parlay his athletic ability into a college scholarship —never mind a lucrative pro career — until his senior year in high school.
He said he never felt pressure to play sports when he was young.
“My mom (Opal Claiborne), she was always the type where, if you want to do it, you can do it. If you don’t, don’t. She just wanted me to get an education and be successful,” Claiborne said.
Claiborne felt his best position in high school was receiver, but when coaches asked him to play quarterback his senior year, he said he didn’t hesitate, even though he might have been more highly recruited had he continued catching passes instead of throwing them.
“I just figure the coaches, they’re going to do what’s best,” Claiborne recalled. “If you’re all for the team, you’re going to make that move, no problem. I don’t believe it’s all about yourself. People will come in and be like, ‘Well, I don’t want to move because this is what I’ve been doing my whole life.’ I’m not like that. I’m mean, you’re here to help the team win.”
He wound up being recruited only regionally. If LSU had not offered him a scholarship, he said he likely could have gone to Texas A&M, Louisiana Tech, Arkansas State or Tulane.
Once he had a chance to play for the Tigers, he did not hesitate. He had long been an LSU fan, and looked up to former LSU football Ronnie Prude and former LSU basketball player Stromile Swift, who both had played at his high school.
LSU recruited him as a receiver, and Claiborne said the thought of playing defense, “never crossed my mind. I always thought I’d be on the offensive side of the ball.”
But just as he readily accepted his one-season move to quarterback and high school, he immediately acquiesced when LSU coaches wanted to put him on defense.
“Once I got here, the second day in camp or whatnot, when they moved me, I started getting comfortable at the spot and figured, this is where I’m going to be,” he said.
Apparently, it was where he belonged.