As USC linebacker Clay Matthews looks back on his college career, he’s able to sum it up perfectly with one phrase.
“It’s not about where you start, it’s about where you finish,” he said.
While college football fans watched USC’s formidable trio of linebackers—Matthews, Brian Cushing and Rey Maualua—with a mixture of admiration and awe this past season, it’s likely that few of them had any idea that Matthews was originally a walk-on player who didn’t even remotely resemble the player he is today.
“I came in slow, undersized, and obviously not heavily recruited,” Matthews said.
In fact, the only Division I-A school to offer him a scholarship was the University of Idaho. And had Matthews opted to go there, he likely would have worked his way into the starting lineup more quickly than he did at USC.
But his father, Clay Matthews—who played linebacker for the Browns and the Falcons from 1978 through 1996—his older brother, Kyle, and his uncle Bruce—an offensive lineman who landed in the Pro Football Hall of Fame after 19 years with the Oilers and the Titans—had all played for the Trojans. And as he evaluated his opportunities, he had no doubt that he was capable of following in their footsteps.
“Maybe I was just naïve thinking that I could play at the same level. When I got there, people may have thought I was crazy,” he said with a laugh. “But my mentality was different from that of a normal recruit coming in who had been heavily recruited. I wanted to be the best, and I knew it was going to take hard work, but I was willing to do that.
“Obviously, genetics kicked in since I was a late bloomer, but at the same time, my success came from a lot of hard work in the weight room, film room, and at practices. I feel very fortunate to be the player I am today, and I can pretty much say that it was all because of hard work.”
That work ethic was undoubtedly the foundation for Matthews’ ascension from simply making the roster, to earning playing time on a few special teams, and then working his way into the linebacker rotation while becoming a standout special teams player. And then, during his senior year, he earned a starter’s role in addition to his special teams responsibilities.
Matthews really hit his stride playing the “elephant position” in USC’s defense, a linebacker position that has similarities to a stand-up defensive end.
“I was really able to showcase my talents as far as rushing the passer and showing my speed, versatility and athleticism rather than primarily staying in the box or dropping back into coverage,” Matthews said. “Since NFL teams also have tape on me playing the more traditional linebacker role, it was great to have that opportunity to show my versatility and the intensity that I’m going to bring day-in and day-out.”
According to the school’s tally, Matthews made 56 tackles, nine tackles for a loss, sacked the opposing quarterback four times, forced two fumbles, recovered a pair of fumbles and blocked a kick during his 13 game appearances in his final season with the Trojans.
In addition to his demonstrated success on defense, the 6-foot-3, 246-pound linebacker was also the winner of USC’s Co-Special Teams Player of the Year Award for three consecutive years, blocking three kicks during his college career. That’s a big plus on Matthews’ resume that, in addition to strong showings at the NFL Combine and his Pro Day, could possibly boost his draft stock from a projected second-round pick to being a late first-round selection in April.
“Coaches will tell you that special teams is where you’ll earn your money during your first year. You need to contribute in more ways because there are lots of guys who are very versatile,” Matthews said. “So it’s very important to me. I understand that being a strong contributor in that area is part of the process, and I think my experience in that area will speak volumes about what I can accomplish.”
With less than a full year of experience as a starter at linebacker, even Matthews will tell you that he has yet to show his full potential at his position. And with the right coaching at the next level combined with his demonstrated work ethic and field intelligence, he could make huge leaps in his development very rapidly.
But even if he only progresses in similar fashion to his years at USC, he will eventually become a high-impact player for an NFL team. Matthews, quite simply, won’t have it any other way. He’ll “just keep going at it,” as he likes to say, until he reaches his goal.
“With the way my career has unfolded, just getting more reps and more plays is going to give me the experience I need to keep progressing. That’ll also make me an even smarter player,” he said. “And then, hopefully, I’ll eventually reach the level of play that my father and my uncle played at during their NFL careers.”
A member of the Pro Football Writers of America, Ed Thompson’s player interviews and NFL features are published across the Scout.com network and at FOXSports.com. You can contact him by email through this link.