The last time Vanderbilt played in the Music City Bowl, D.J. Moore was just a junior.
There was no senior season.
Minutes after the Commodores won their first bowl game in more than 50 years, Moore declared himself eligible for the 2009 NFL Draft, and four months later the Chicago Bears selected the cornerback and two-way threat in the fourth round.
“There was a possibility I could have made more [money] if I had stayed, but I was ready to go,” Moore recalled last week in a phone interview before a Bears’ practice. “I was All-American, so I felt like there was nowhere to go but down. I felt I was good enough and ready to go to the next level.”
Four years later Vanderbilt is back in the Music City Bowl, in no small part because of another junior standout — wide receiver Jordan Matthews.
After strong finishes in both his freshman and sophomore seasons, Matthews got off to a good start in 2012 and produced one of the better seasons ever by a Vanderbilt wideout. In addition to seven touchdown catches, he broke the single-season school record with 1,262 receiving yards. His 87 receptions are just 10 behind all-time leader Keith Edwards (1983). He was named to two All-Southeastern Conference first teams and just missed a spot on the Associated Press All-American team.
With a 6-foot-3, 205-pound frame, good hands, a rigorous work ethic and a humble attitude, Matthews appears destined for the NFL sooner or later.
Whether he’ll be there next year is yet to be determined. Matthews has stayed mum on the subject, which he said he’ll address after the season.
But ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. thinks Matthews could climb as high as a second-round pick in April’s draft if he runs well in NFL workouts.
“I like his size. I like the way he adapts to the situation,” Kiper said. “The thing that is going to be important with him is he has always been a red-zone threat. He has always been a guy who can get open. But that is the college level. At the NFL level, will his speed be good enough to be a second-round wide receiver?”
Moore said his decision to leave after intercepting 13 passes in three years and being named a second-team All-American in 2008 was his.
“I didn’t talk to my parents. It was pretty much my decision,” he said.
He said he did receive input from others, including his college coaches. Moore’s position coach at the time, Jamie Bryant, actually asked Jovan Haye to come talk to Moore. Haye, a star defensive end, left the Commodores after three years and was drafted by the Carolina Panthers in the sixth round of the 2005 draft.
Moore hasn’t looked back.
In three full seasons with the Bears, he has 10 interceptions, including two this season. Plus, he is joined in the locker room by two former college teammates, quarterback Jay Cutler and wide receiver Earl Bennett. Like Moore, Bennett also left after three years. Due to a concussion sustained two weeks ago, Bennett has not been made available to media under league rules and was unavailable to comment on his approach.
Vanderbilt’s all-time leader with 236 receptions, Bennett’s numbers dipped in 2007 due to injury and inconsistency at quarterback. Cutler was a senior during Bennett’s freshman campaign, but then Chris Nickson and Mackenzi Adams rotated in the next two seasons. Bennett opted not to come back for his senior season and was drafted in the third round by the Bears in 2008.
Moore said Matthews should keep in mind who will be throwing him the ball.
Matthews made just five catches his first five games in 2011 with Larry Smith as starter. When Jordan Rodgers took over midway through the season, Matthews flourished. He caught five touchdowns and hauled in 36 passes the last seven games.
Rodgers, a senior, won’t be back next year. The starting job likely will go either to rising senior Austyn Carta-Samuels or Patton Robinette, who redshirted his freshman season.
“In college, Earl was the man,” Moore said. “The thing with Earl was I think he had to leave too. His production wasn’t going up. ... It is tough when your quarterback is leaving so you don’t know how the guy behind is going to perform. Sometimes it can affect how you play and how your draft stock rises or falls so it is tough.”
If Matthews decides to test the NFL waters early, Moore won’t see it as a bad move.
“From seeing what he does, he has good routes. He has good hands,” Moore said. “The league always needs receivers. There are opportunities for him on a lot of teams out there. I think if he leaves he’ll be fine.”
He just won’t be the first Vanderbilt player to do so after the Music City Bowl.