It is inaccurate to say that Vanderbilt has never had a player like Jordan Matthews. It is just the Commodores have not often had one like him for so long.
As the football program’s recruiting took steps forward over the past decade or so, particularly in the final years of Bobby Johnson’s tenure, some of the best players could not wait to take the next step in their careers and head for the NFL.
Defensive lineman Jovan Haye was the first to leave, with one year of eligibility remaining. Wide receiver Earl Bennett did the same. Then cornerback D.J. Moore made the move as well.
It is tough to say any of them made the wrong choice. Haye spent more than six seasons as a professional. Bennett and Moore have careers that continue to this day.
Clearly, all of them were ready at the time of their departures.
Matthews easily could have made a similar move after last season, when he caught 94 passes for more than 1,300 yards and scored eight touchdowns. He led the SEC in receptions and was among the NCAA’s top 10 in yardage.
There was little, if anything, left for him to prove at the college level. Most probably would have said the sensible thing was to leave. He declared that he wanted to stay.
Given the degree to which the program has picked up steam the last two years under James Franklin and his staff, Matthews’ move — or the lack thereof — creates a rare dynamic for Vanderbilt.
The combination of his performance and continued presence gives Matthews tremendous clout within his team’s locker room and will earn him respect from opposing defenses throughout the season. His teammates will hang on his every word because they know he does not have to be there, he chooses to. Opponents will try to cover his every step because they know a failure to do so means he is gone, on his way to the end zone.
He gives the Commodores an immediate and intimidating identity at a time of year when most college programs — even some of the best — have to sort out the strengths and weaknesses of their rosters.
Arguably the last Vanderbilt player to chart a similar course was quarterback Jay Cutler. His choice to return for his senior season of 2005 had the potential to be career suicide given the state of the offensive line at that time. But with Cutler as foundation and source of confidence for all those around him, though, the Commodores went 5-6 with victories over Arkansas, Ole Miss and, oh yeah, Tennessee.
Given that Vanderbilt has been to two straight bowl games and won nine games last season, the potential impact of Matthews’ decision stirs the imagination. Sure, one player guarantees nothing in terms of results but his presence is certain to make that team better and more confident than the alternative.
Simply put: When you know who your go-to guy is, you have a chance to go places.
For Vanderbilt, Matthews is that guy.
Beginning this fall, more and more of the players recruited by the current staff will assume bigger roles on the field. By all accounts, those recruiting classes have been a cut above the ones they
So it follows that there will be more players in the coming years with reason to think they can make the jump to the NFL as soon as the rules allow. Matthews’ choice to come back this year, though, will give them something else to think about.
It might not have been the easy decision but it’s easy to see all the ways it could benefit the program. Plus, Vanderbilt fans will be more than happy to see him in action for another 12 (or more) games.