Attention from quarterback likely to make defenses focus on VU's Matthews

Thursday, September 8, 2011 at 9:48pm

The prime target of Vanderbilt’s new-look offense was no secret — at least not to those who watched spring and preseason camp practices.

Last Saturday, everyone became aware. Quarterback Larry Smith threw the ball in Jordan Matthews' direction nine times in the Commodores’ season-opening 45-14 rout of Elon.

Expect more where that came from when Connecticut rolls into Vanderbilt Stadium for a 6:35 p.m. kickoff Saturday (CSS).

After impressing the new coaching staff in the spring and preseason, the 6-foot-3, 202-pound Matthews could be the Commodores’ first true go-to receiver since Earl Bennett left after the 2007 season.

“He is a great athlete, a great player,” running back Zac Stacy said. “He is going to make a huge contribution for us this year, and he is going to make plays. We are looking forward to seeing him flying around.”

Matthews, just a sophomore, displayed his speed and athleticism last weekend when he caught three passes for 58 yards. He also hauled in a career-long 44-yard pass from Smith over his shoulder and down the sidelines, which set up Vanderbilt’s second touchdown.

That was his last catch, though. Four of Elon’s six pass breakups stopped Matthews from picking up more receptions.

The tight coverage most likely will continue as word spreads about the Madison, Ala., native. Matthews, however, says he isn’t the Commodores’ only go-to threat — and he can’t be as Southeastern Conference play is just around the corner.

“The way I still look at it is our better receiver is a tight end — that is Brandon Barden,” Matthews said. “He takes a lot of pressure off you. When you have a great tight end and then great running backs, like Zac Stacy and Warren Norman, it is not hard to do your job. So I don’t put too much pressure on myself. I just go out there and play.”

Matthews emerged at the end of last season as a true freshman. In the final four games, he caught four touchdowns — the most of any Vanderbilt receiver all season. That production carried over into the spring and summer, and first-year coach James Franklin couldn’t help but notice.

“Any time I would walk out my office and walk down the field,” Franklin said, “he would be out there working on the JUGS [football passing] machine, doing whatever he can to do get better.”

His strength and physical talent was on display during the preseason with leaping, acrobatic catches over multiple defenders and hanging tough after hauling in passes over the middle. Those sort of plays were usually followed by a playful taunt to his teammate defenders or by dunking the ball over the goalpost.

The obvious swagger was something not often seen last year as Matthews just handed the ball to the official after a score. But he insists that side of him only comes out at practice. He plans to maintain his humble ways during games.

“We are out here in the hot sun. You can come out here and mope around or you can try to make it fun,” he said. “That is what I come out here and do.

“I have always been a confident player. I was blessed with a lot of ability so I feel like every day I got to try and come out and make plays. I have always been confident because I know what I can do out on the field.”

With long strides and a gigantic vertical leap, Matthews is the receiver of obvious natural ability. In fact, he is a distant cousin to legendary Jerry Rice.

Watching film of Rice, whom he saw play when the NFL's all-time touchdowns leader was still with the Oakland Raiders, Matthews has picked up certain tendencies that he has carried over to his game.

But he doesn’t speak to the Hall of Famer often.

“He is a busy guy,” Matthews said. “Hopefully I can get to his level one day and then I’ll go talk to him.”

In fact, he said he owes a lot to his father, Rod, a former basketball player. That’s not hard to believe after watching Matthews, who often looks like a post-player going up for a rebound as he snags a pass from a cornerback.

“My dad is probably my biggest inspiration,” Matthews said. “That is the person I view as my hero. ... He really helped me get my game to where it is now. I have picked up most of my stuff from my dad, especially my talent.”

Against Elon, Matthews was unable to catch a touchdown, which ended his streak of four straight games with at least one. The last Vanderbilt receiver to catch touchdowns in four straight games was Bennett in 2005. He is now with the Chicago Bears, catching passes from former Vanderbilt teammate Jay Cutler.

Chances are good though that Matthews will begin a new streak real soon.

“He is driven to be great,” Franklin said. “I think if you ask Jordan, he would think he is the best wide receiver in the SEC and ... the best receiver in the country. We need more [players with] confidence like that.”