LARAMIE — Watching college football as a youngster, there was a certain player Tyler Hall took a liking to more than others.
LSU defensive back Tyrann Mathieu was one of the best during his time with the Tigers. The former All-American earned the nickname Honey Badger for his propensity as a smaller player to make game-changing plays against much bigger competition whether it was in the secondary or as a kick returner.
The 5-foot-9 Mathieu won the Chuck Bednarik Award as the nation’s top defensive back and was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy in 2011 before moving to the NFL, where he’s set to begin his seventh season after signing a three-year contract with the Kansas City Chiefs earlier this year.
Hall saw a lot of himself in Mathieu growing up in southern California. From the diminutive size to the versatility to the aggressive style of play, Mathieu gave Hall someone to model his game after.
“I always believed I could play football, but the Honey Badger, in my eyes, that’s somebody that I look up to,” Hall said. “I’ve been looking up to him since I was young, since his LSU days.”
It’s ironic considering the way Wyoming’s coaches view Hall in the Cowboys’ defense.
Hall is going through his final spring as arguably the Cowboys’ best cover corner. He began his career there before moving inside at the beginning of last season to nickel, a position that requires not only coverage against slot receivers but also enough physicality to hold up against the run closer to the line of scrimmage.
Hall started the first five games there before injuries on the outside created a need for him back at corner. If things got desperate enough, Hall, at 5-10 and 190 pounds, could probably even fill in at safety, where Mathieu spent most of his time at LSU.
“He’s our Honey Badger,” Wyoming defensive coordinator Jake Dickert said. “He can go inside and outside. Having the ability to cover in the slot is completely different than covering on the outside, and to do them equally as strong is impressive. And yet having the ability to fit the run and blitz and do those things. … I think Tyler is extremely undervalued.”
Hall won’t put up the kind of numbers Mathieu did in college considering the different positions they play, but Hall has produced for Wyoming wherever he’s lined up. He’s got 70 career tackles entering his senior season while his 10 pass breakups last season led the team despite him playing on the outside for just half the season.
Hall has forced three career fumbles and became the only Wyoming player to ever return two kickoffs for touchdowns in the same season back in 2017 when he earned all-Mountain West honors as a returner. College football’s new kickoff rule allowing returners to signal for a fair catch inside their own 25-yard line for a touchback has significantly cut down on the chances returners are willing to take, but Wyoming isn’t using Hall as a returner anymore because of the value he brings to the defense.
“We just felt like he added so much on the outside,” Wyoming coach Craig Bohl said.
Hall got reps at nickel during Thursday’s practice with Keyon Blankenbaker out with a pulled hamstring. Hall could slide back inside at times during the season depending on injuries or certain matchups, but the Cowboys’ plan is to use him almost exclusively at corner, which is what Hall prefers.
“I like being on an island,” Hall said.
Wyoming has experience opposite Hall in fifth-year senior Antonio Hull, but when it comes to the opposition’s best receiver, Hall is likely to draw the assignment regardless of the skill set. Hall admitted technique is important whenever he’s at a size disadvantage.
“You’ve got to know how counter what they’re going to do and their physicality, he said.
But there’s not a matchup on the outside that Hall doesn’t think he can win.
“I’m a stingy corner. I don’t like nothing caught on me,” Hall said. “If a get a ball caught on me, I’ll be mad about it, but I’ll forget about it. I’m just a person that wants to make an impact on the field and just let it be known that I can shut down one side of the field. That’s the type of player I want to be.”
That mindset, Hall said, started to form during his prep days as an undersized corner playing in California’s perennially tough West Catholic Athletic League near Los Angeles. Hall wasn’t ranked by any of the major recruiting services coming out of Junipero Serra High in 2015.
“I’ve always been around competition,” Hall said. “For somebody to tell me to just match up with somebody, it’ll be no problem.”
Four years later, as perhaps pound for pound the most valuable player on Wyoming’s defense, Hall is being mentioned in the same breath as the player whose game he’s always tried to emulate.
“A player that’s very versatile on the field,” Hall said. “You can put him everywhere and you can trust that he’s going to get the job done. (Dickert) comparing me to that, it’s a cool thing.”