Team-focused Matthews closing in on two SEC records

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Call Jordan Matthews a forward thinker.

The Vanderbilt star wide receiver has already figured that, later in life, when he calls a former teammate to talk about the good old days, he wants to chat about what they achieved as a team, and not just individual accomplishments.

And this coming from the Commodore who is about to become the Southeastern Conference’s all-time leader in both career receptions and career yardage.

“First and foremost, it’s all about the team,” Matthews said. “If we go out there as a team and we get wins, that’s something we can talk about as a locker room. You can call up your guys 10 years from now and say, ‘Remember when we got that win?’

“I’m not going to call any of my friends and tell them, ‘Remember when I got that catch?’ because it doesn’t matter. It’s about the team.”

That’s the mantra third-year Commodores coach James Franklin has preached since taking over the reins in 2011. The message has been particularly imparted to Matthews, the Biletnikoff Award candidate as the top receiver in the country.

For his career, Matthews has 3,080 receiving yards, needing only 14 yards to surpass former Georgia receiver Terrance Edwards as the SEC’s all-time leader. His 208 receptions also rank No. 2 all-time in the conference, trailing the 236 catches by former Commodore Earl Bennett.

This season, the All-America candidate has 58 receptions to lead the SEC and rank eighth nationally at 8.3 catches per game. His 114 receiving yards per game ranks second in the SEC and 12th in the country.

“If you look at most people who win individual awards and get individual attention, they come from winning teams and winning programs,” said Franklin, whose Commodores (4-3 overall, 1-3 in SEC) play at 14th-ranked Texas A&M (5-2, 202) on Saturday.

” … We emphasize winning and being part of a winning program, and those individual accolades become a byproduct of that,” he added.

In that regard, Matthews has the platform very few, if any, former Vanderbilt player has ever had. Last year’s nine wins were Vandy’s greatest tally in nearly a century, and the team has made consecutive bowl games for the first time in program history.

And it would have been unheard of some five years ago or sooner to think that Vanderbilt, should it win at least two more games to get bowl eligible again, could have a senior class to play in three straight bowl games for the first time ever.

“I feel like once the team is doing well, that’s when those individual accomplishments get highlighted more,” said Matthews, whose 94 catches last season led the SEC, set a program record and tied former LSU receiver Josh Reed for the second-best campaign in conference history.

“It’s like, ‘OK, you did that, but it was a part of us winning.’ So, then that’s when a team can rally around the individual stuff,” he added. “That’s why I am putting all my focus on winning. Once we get the ‘W’ and those individual statistics and those records come, then we’ll worry about those then, and we’ll celebrate them then.”

At 6-foot-3 and 206 pounds, Matthews has the size, strength, speed and knack for catching the ball in traffic to be considered a top prospect for next year’s NFL draft. Last winter, Commodores fans held their collective breath until he announced he would return for his senior season.

“The thing that really separates him is his body,” Franklin said of Matthews, a Madison, Ala., native. “He’s a big-bodied kid. He has tremendous ball skills and body control. I don’t know if there is a better wide receiver in the country when the ball is in the air.

“Now, is there maybe a better route runner? Is there a faster runner or this or that? Maybe, but when the ball is in the air, I don’t know if there is a better wideout in the country.”

If there is, he could well be on the team the Commodores play Saturday. The favorite target of Aggies quarterback Johnny Manziel is sophomore receiver Mike Evans, who leads the SEC and ranks second nationally at 146.3 receiving yards per game.

“He’s a really good player,” Matthews said of the 6-foot-5 Evans. “I haven’t had the chance to watch him play much because we’re always playing or studying film on the next opponent. I have all the respect in the world for him. I think he is one of the best receivers out there.”

While seeing many double- and triple-teams as defenses roll coverage to account for his offensive presence, Matthews likes that he garners so much attention from opposing defenses.

“A lot of people might think it’s frustrating,” he said, “but I actually think it’s exciting. I know that if people are going to play those coverages, then I have gained that respect around the league and around college football. So, that’s exciting to know that.”

It has also opened the door for senior receiver Jonathan Krause to make a name for himself, especially after junior receiver Chris Boyd, another top receiver, was dismissed from the team early in the season.

In fact, Matthews and Krause are the third-most productive receiving duo in the SEC at a combined 188.1 yards per game, trailing LSU’s Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry (200 yards per game) and Texas A&M’s Malcome Kennedy and Evans (198.3).

“It shows that if you continue to work hard and stay dedicated that good things will come,” Matthews said of Krause, who has already set career highs with 29 catches and 519 receiving yards. “He has really showed that he is a special player on this level and the next.”

While Matthews and teammates are focused on playing Texas A&M for the first time, they do so with concern about senior quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels. He suffered a lower-body injury in last week’s win over Georgia and was replaced by redshirt freshman Patton Robinette, who will start on Saturday.

The return of Carta-Samuels is uncertain. And it comes on the heels of the recent death of his grandfather, a former Vanderbilt baseball player with whom Carta-Samuels was very close.

“It has been rough on him,” Matthews said of close friend Carta-Samuels. “But he doesn’t want anyone to feel sorry for him. He tells us, ‘Don’t worry about me.’ Just go win.”

Of course, that is the singular focus for Matthews, even as he is about to become the most productive receiver in SEC history.

“Jordan just comes to work every single day and does the best he possibly can to help this team win and have success,” Franklin said. “If there is a byproduct from that, if there are other things that come from him doing everything he possibly can to help this team win, then wonderful.

“But we don’t talk about those things. We don’t emphasize those things. I have never had a conversation with him about it. When this season is over, we will talk about those things.”