Twitchy. Elusive. Silky and smooth.
These are just a few of the words Indiana football players are using to describe grad transfer receiver D.J. Matthews.
“D.J.’s great. I love that guy. He’s been phenomenal thus far,” said Jack Tuttle, IU’s lone scholarship quarterback throwing passes this spring. “The kid’s super quick, can jump, has it all. I’m just so thankful he’s here and we’re all glad to have him.”
There are high hopes for Matthews, the former U.S. Army All-America recruit and transfer from Florida State. With slot receiver Whop Philyor bound for the NFL Draft, the Hoosier passing attack will need a new weapon in the slot.
Matthews has all the talent in the world, which is why he was considered a four-star prospect out of high school in Jacksonville, Fla., with scholarship offers from nearly every top program in the country. The production just wasn’t quite there in three seasons at FSU, topping out with 36 receptions for 355 yards in 2019. He opted out of the 2020 season as a senior.
When IU reached out, Matthews saw the Hoosier program, which had Michael Penix Jr. tossing upwards of 50 passes in a game, and he favored the opportunity. All indications are that he’s embracing that opportunity in spring ball.
This year, IU’s coaches came up with the idea of honoring practice players of the day, each day, one for offense and one for defense. Matthews, along with fellow grad transfer Ryder Anderson, a defensive end, won the very first set of spring practice awards.
IU receivers coach Grant Heard, known for coaching hard, will often say things like his younger receivers “don’t know their left foot from their right.” They can get lost, and Heard will let them know they are straying. But that hasn’t been the case with Matthews this spring.
“He’s not a freshman. He’s played a lot,” Heard said. “For being Day 1, and the attention to detail that he had on stuff that he’d never done with us before, was pretty impressive. So that just showed me a lot, that it was important to him, and that he really does want to be great.
“Did he make mistakes? He did. But for a first day, to make as few mistakes as he had, and all the stuff I’m asking him to do, he did an awesome job that day.”
If Matthews can maintain that level of performance, it bodes well for IU’s passing attack in 2021. On the outside, Penix will have two experienced targets, starting with 6-foot-2, 210-pound senior Ty Fryfogle, the Big Ten’s reigning receiver of the year. Along with Fryfogle’s proven ability to win 50-50 balls, Heard hopes a 6-4, 212-pound sophomore, Miles Marshall, will take the next step in being a more physical receiver at the point of attack.
So the Hoosiers just have to find an inside receiver who can make up for some of the playmaking in space that has been Philyor’s bailiwick. Matthews, a 5-7, 153-pound senior, fits that mold.
“He’s a great route-runner, very elusive, very silky, very smooth in his routes,” Marshall said. “He adds a lot of explosiveness to the room.”
Matthews also adds a bridge. As IU coach Tom Allen mentioned when the Hoosiers signed the grad transfer receiver, there is experience at the top of the depth chart. Penix has more than a few experienced options now in Fryfogle, Marshall, and tight end Peyton Hendershot. But there is a younger crop of receivers still in progress.
Any number of freshmen, namely Javon Swinton, Da’Shaun Brown, David Baker, and Jordyn Williams, could emerge as a reliable target. Jacolby Hewitt, a sophomore, made some impressive catches in 2020. Heard even mentioned a walk-on, Bedford native McCall Ray, as someone who has transformed this spring and could eventually push for playing time.
But Matthews, in his last collegiate season, keeps Heard from having to rely on a younger player before they are ready. Matthews also adds to the competition in practice, even with the Hoosiers’ defensive backs.
Junior corner Reese Taylor has had a chance to match up with Matthews a few times this spring, and he has more than a few adjectives to tag him with.
“He’s a real twitchy guy, real quick off the line of scrimmage. If your eyes ain’t right, he’s going to get you,” Taylor said. “At the same time, he’s a twitch guy. He’s a real fast and electric guy, elusive. You have to make sure you come out with your A-game every time you guard him.”
So far, it seems Matthews has brought his A-game to spring practice, embracing his opportunity at IU.
Before camp even started, it seemed, Matthews understood what was in front of him.
“For Coach Allen to reach out to a guy who’s already graduated, who has already played and already had experience, and give me another opportunity to come to another program, a dominant, uprising program,” Matthews said, “that’s just something I feel like I couldn’t pass up that opportunity.”
(photo courtesy of IU Athletics)