In search of information on Indiana football, D.J. Matthews’ best source was one of the Hoosiers’ rivals.
The former Florida State receiver reached out to his best friend, Ohio State cornerback Shaun Wade. They were teammates at Trinity Christian Academy in Jacksonville, Fla., both U.S. Army All-Americans and top-50 national recruits. Shortly after landing in the NCAA transfer portal in mid-September, the Hoosiers were one of the first programs to reach out.
Matthews needed Wade’s opinion. He had a closer look at IU’s program than Matthews ever could.
“He told me Indiana would be a great fit,” Matthews said. “He told me they had a great coach. He told me Michael Penix was a great quarterback also.”
The intervening two months since Matthews’ commitment have only verified Wade’s perspective. In fact, it was only days after the 5-foot-10, 160-pound speedster announced his intent to transfer to IU that he was watching his future program facing off with the Buckeyes. Wade had a pick-6, but the Hoosiers had plenty of highlights of their own in a furious second-half comeback.
Ty Fryfogle, who matched up with Wade at times, logged his second consecutive 200-yard receiving effort of the season, a Big Ten first. Penix dropped back to pass 51 times and threw for 491 yards and five touchdowns.
Those 51 drop-backs really stuck in Matthews’ mind.
“That’s all you need to know as a receiver,” Matthews said. “He spreads the ball out. It’s not just one or two guys. He likes to get it in different people’s hands.”
Matthews, a midyear enrollee who is only days away from arriving in Bloomington, hopes to become one of Penix’s favored pass-catchers. As IU waits to find out if its senior receivers Fryfogle and Whop Philyor are returning, there is one senior about to arrive, and he has something to showcase in 2021.
Matthews flashed during his time at FSU, capturing the imagination of the Seminole fanbase with a 74-yard punt return touchdown versus Miami (Fla.) in 2018, fielding the ball on a hop, giving a hesitation move, and then bolting up the sideline for a score. Matthews just never did that consistently. He finished his Seminole career with just over 800 yards receiving in three seasons, opting out of his senior campaign in September and electing to transfer.
“It was just time for me to find a new home, be recruited again,” Matthews said. “I played for three different coaches. I just wanted a fresh start. Coach (Mike) Norvell, they were great. They pushed the program, they are changing the culture there, changing the narrative about it. … I just needed a fresh start.”
In his next program, Matthews will be a part of what’s considered a changing program. He can also change the course of his own college career.
The marriage between Matthews and IU is mutually beneficial. The Hoosiers needed a receiver, a bridge from veterans like Fryfogle and Philyor to a younger group that’s still developing behind them. Matthews, who was recruited by the South’s elite programs out of high school, admittedly didn’t know much about IU when he was first approached. But it was an opportunity.
IU receivers coach Grant Heard talked about his experience developing pros, such as Donte Moncrief and Laquan Treadwell at Ole Miss, or up-and-comers like Fryfogle and Philyor at IU. Not to mention, the Hoosiers’ head coach, Tom Allen, had just guided the Hoosiers to an eight-win season in 2019.
Heard and Allen both spoke of big things coming in 2020.
“They told me to believe what they were going to accomplish this season,” Matthews said. “A lot of things that Coach Allen and Coach Heard said they were going to do, they lived up to it. They said they were going to come out and play with passion.”
Matthews watched as IU beat then-No. 8 Penn State, and Allen crowd-surfed in the locker room. Matthews was watching as the Hoosiers beat then-No. 23 Michigan, and one of his little-league football and basketball buddies from Jacksonville, safety Devon Matthews (not related), grabbed the game-sealing interception. He was tackled by Allen in celebration.
“Honestly, I’ve never heard anything about Indiana football, only basketball,” D.J. Matthews said. “When they contacted me I started doing a little research and what I saw was Coach Allen was a name that everybody kept bringing up, that he was a great coach.
“He’s always excited. It’s like he’s in the moment, too. That’s not something you get from a lot of coaches.”
Matthews also considered Jackson State, now coached by NFL great Deion Sanders. But the speedy wideout felt a strong pull toward IU. They seemed to have the coach and the quarterback he wanted, as Wade said they did. They were also offering the one thing Matthews needed.
Again, just an opportunity.
“They did show me ways they were going to use me and get me the ball, but they said just to trust them, trust the process, and that it’s not going to be easy,” Matthews said. “I rather live with that than have someone promise me something. That’s what I want.”
He wants to be challenged. Even as the highest-rated recruit to ever suit up for IU, he’s going to have to earn his snaps. If he gets those snaps, maybe he can catch lots and lots of passes from Penix. Maybe, he can put his blazing speed and quick-twitch ability to more effective use.
If he makes enough plays, maybe Matthews can maximize his stature in the eyes of NFL talent evaluators. But that isn’t the only goal, or even the main one.
“It’s my last year,” Matthews said. “I have to come in, I have to dominate the game, in all areas. That’s something that’s been on my mind since I transferred and committed to Indiana. I know I’m coming in to dominate, to play the best game I can play. And that’s the goal, to win championships. That’s the main goal.”
There are a few things Matthews still has to figure out. Only days away from arrival at IU, he doesn’t know exactly what he’s studying or where he’s living. He hasn’t been to Bloomington, because the NCAA’s ban on in-person visits cut out that opportunity. He’s going to be coming in “swimming,” as he puts it, just trying to get in the playbook and the weight room as quickly as possible.
He doesn’t even know yet, for sure, whether he’ll be playing alongside Philyor and Fryfogle or truly replacing them, because the NCAA has extended fall athletes an extra year of eligibility if they want.
“Fry, all the receivers. I’m just excited to play with everybody,” Matthews said. He, again, clarified he doesn’t have any insight into whether Fryfogle will come back.
“I’m just hoping,” Matthews said. “He’s talented. He’s super talented.”
Matthews believes in his abilities, too. When asked if he has more to show on the football field, he was emphatic.
“Oh, a lot more. A lot more,” Matthews said. “They haven’t seen anything yet. I got something to display.
“In due time … can’t wait to show y’all.”