All good football careers come to end, and for Jordan Matthews, November 20 of 2009 sure looked like it would be the day.
Matthews’ Madison Academy (Ala.) team trailed 24-21 to Leeds High School with scant seconds left in a third-round Alabama high school football playoff game. The senior had one last shot to keep his team’s playoff hopes alive, but he was tackled on a kickoff. Game over, season over, and, as it seemed to Matthews, his career was as well.
Not that it had been a bad career: he had posted 1,000-yard receiving seasons, and his team had just finished a 13-1 season. But few outside of the Huntsville area seemed to know or care — save perhaps one place.
“I laid there on the field, done with high school football, and I had no college offers. Zero. The only one I had hope in was Vanderbilt,” Matthews remembers. “But every day I waited to see if one of the guys was going to de-commit, and I was like, ‘Hopefully I’ll get a chance, and it’ll come in December,’” he recalls.
Recruiting is a funny game. Matthews felt his production would get him attention, and sure enough, a hand-written letter arrived in the mail from Vanderbilt assistant coach Robbie Caldwell during his junior season.
“I got it, and I was so surprised – that first letter being from a Southeastern Conference school – so I thought my recruiting was just going to go through the roof,” he said.
Instead, it engendered a false sense of security as Matthews wasn’t very proactive with his recruitment. When most recruits were going to prospect camps in June, Matthews took a mission trip. He did go to camps in July, but he quickly realized others had gotten the jump on him a month earlier.
“That kind of slowed me down a lot. But when I’d go to schools, they’d say, ‘You know, we’ve got a lot of guys that are already committed, but you’re right there! If something happens, you’ll be that guy to come in!’ Trooper Taylor – the old wide receiver coach at Auburn – he really liked me. He said, ‘Just hang in there, you might hear something from us.’ But after a while, it was just like I was waiting around,” he said.
By now, Matthews realized his best hope was Vandy. He hatched a plan to catch the eyes of the Commodore coaches at camp that summer.
“I had to make an impact, and I know one play that was real significant for me was with Synjyn Dayes – he’s the quarterback now at Georgia Tech. We started working together, and I said, ‘Hey man, help me look good out here! I’ve got to get this (scholarship) offer!’ So I saw (VU coach) Bobby Johnson standing on the Star-V (logo) at about the 50-yard line. We were throwing one-on-ones out to the field, so I said, ‘Hey man, throw me a deep post. I’m going to run right by Bobby Johnson and shake his hand!’ he recalls. “So he threw me a deep post, and I ran right by Bobby Johnson. He said, ‘You’re having a good day,’ and I said, ‘Thank you, sir!’ and walked back to the huddle. I think that helped me out a little bit.”
However, Vanderbilt planned to sign just four receivers in the class, and by the end of July, they had four committed. The waiting game continued. Meanwhile, coaches weren’t flocking to the high school that had never produced a Division I scholarship player and had a high school enrollment under 300.
But meanwhile, VU receiver commitment Bradley Roby was getting cold feet over Vanderbilt’s 2-10 season as bigger schools started recruiting him. Knowing this, Caldwell starting showing up more and more at Madison Academy practices in case VU needed a fall-back plan.
Roby would eventually renege on Vanderbilt and commit to Ohio State, where he became an All-American cornerback. As a result, on Dec. 25, Matthews got the Christmas present of a lifetime — a football scholarship to Vanderbilt.
Matthews vowed to be the best receiver in the country for whoever signed him. Vanderbilt remained his only offer, so he signed that winter and immediately stood out when he got to campus. Most of Vanderbilt’s players redshirt in their first seasons, but Matthews played. His first catch — a 35-yarder against Eastern Michigan — came in VU’s fifth game.
But the season was becoming another 2-10 disaster, and so Matthews started seeing the field later in games. He’d come in and catch a fourth-quarter touchdown pass and then find himself on the bench until the fourth quarter again next week, when he’d repeat the feat. Matthews admits to being frustrated a bit, but he kept humble, took advice, and kept working. He cracked the starting lineup in the last week and caught seven passes for 74 yards and one touchdown in VU’s loss to Wake Forest.
Matthews was absolutely unstoppable in practice next fall. Stardom was eminent… but then the season started. After a three-catch, 58-yard game in the opening-night win over Elon, he had just five catches for 59 yards over the next six weeks combined. It was hard to reconcile those flashes of practice dominance with what was almost a complete lack of production, but coach James Franklin didn’t abandon hope.
“Coach Franklin, after every game, he called me — whether it was 4 a.m. the next day or right after the game — and he’d say, ‘Be in my office by 7 on Sunday morning.’ And it would just be me and him watching film. ‘What did you do on this play? Why’d it go wrong? What’d you do on this play?’ He could be doing a million other things, but he believed in me because he saw that out there in practice, and he knew it would come into fruition into the game,” Matthews recalls.
In the eighth game, the breakout finally happened: six catches, 151 yards and a score against a top-10 Arkansas team. However, Matthews says the next week’s game, a nine-reception, 170-yard, one-touchdown game against Florida, was the turning point.
“I really felt like there was a point in the game where I realized the coaches were like, ‘Hey, we’re going to get the ball in your hands. You’ve got to make some plays for us,’” Matthews said. “And I feel like I made some plays that game. I didn’t keep up with the numbers, but my dad called me after the game and he said, ‘Son, did you realize that you had almost 180 yards in a game, in The Swamp, versus Florida?’ And I was like, I can really do this college football thing at a high level.”
Jordan Matthews’ ascension continues. The record books prove it, as his name is now all over them.
Matthews’ 94 catches in 2012 is the second-highest total in the school’s history. His 1,323 yards set a school record. Those receptions tied him for second all-time on the SEC’s single-season chart, and the yardage ranks him sixth. By midseason of 2013, he’d set the league’s all-time record for receiving yards in a career.
How does the 6-foot-3, 205-pounder do it? Like Matthews’ cousin Jerry Rice — indisputably the greatest receiver in football history — VU receivers coach Josh Gattis chalks it up to his incredible work ethic. Matthews never lets up in practice, to the point that even if he’s touched down in 80 yards from the goal line on a play, he’ll still run the length of the field to help keep in shape.
The other thing that makes Matthews truly special is that he can beat you in so many ways. Ole Miss double-covered him throughout most of VU’s 2013 opener, and yet he snagged 10 balls for 178 yards and a score. He can catch fade routes on the corner of the end zone. He can go up in traffic and catch balls in crowds. He can adjust to under-thrown balls and turn them into touchdowns. And even though he’s not the fastest guy in the SEC, he has an uncanny ability to find the end zone on end-arounds or short screens from anywhere on the field.
Many think Matthews is a first-round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. As it was with Rice, the only question about him is that speed. Gattis and Matthews think that concern is overblown.
“Jordan always jokes that he’s like Sasquatch – he’s never been caught!” Gattis laughs. “I know if he’s got the ball in his hand and he’s got a lead on you, you’ll never catch him, regardless of his speed.”
And if NFL scouts are listening, Gattis offers a ringing endorsement.
“He’s an unbelievable player. He has unbelievable passion for the game. That kid will always be hungry and motivated to play football. It doesn’t matter if he’s playing little league football, college football or high school football, NFL. He loves to play this game, and that’s what makes him special,” Gattis says.
Those who still doubt would probably be wise to listen to Auburn’s Trooper Taylor, whom Matthews bumped into this summer. “He just kind of shook his head and said, ‘Hey, we missed on you.’ And I said, ‘It’s all good Coach. I’m at a place I wanted to be all along. I’m happy, and I wouldn’t want to be at any other school,’” Matthews said.