Unheralded Jeff Mathews intriguing scouts in a year of star-studded QBs
As the crow flies, Camarillo, Calif., is about 2,350 miles from the Ithaca, N.Y., campus of Cornell University. The quickest route between the two locales involves hours of air travel, with a drive to the airport in Burbank or Los Angeles on one end and a trip from Syracuse or Rochester on the other.
Jeff Mathews made that journey during his senior year at Camarillo High, part of an official recruiting visit with the Big Red football program. When he arrived in Ithaca, no doubt slightly spent from the travel, he had just one thing on his mind.
"He literally got in the lobby, said, 'This is nice,' " Cornell head coach David Archer recalls, "and asked where he would watch film."
Archer, formerly a player at Cornell, was the team's recruiting coordinator when it landed Mathews, a promising QB from across the country. Four years later, that arrangement has reached new heights, with Archer now running the program and Mathews, headed into his fourth year as a starter, ready to crash the NFL draft party next April.
The 2014 draft class will be loaded with talented senior quarterbacks like Clemson's Tajh Boyd, Alabama's A.J. McCarron, Georgia's Aaron Murray and many more. But it's the Ivy League's Mathews who has piqued scouts' attention headed into the 2013 college football season.
And neither Archer nor new Cornell quarterbacks coach Shane Hurd is the least bit surprised.
"His arm strength is the best I've ever seen live and he makes every single throw," Hurd says. "He's better live -- awfully good on tape, but seeing his arm strength, some of the throws he makes ... it's impressive on film but it's real impressive live."
Says Archer: "There's been a lot of great QBs that play in the Ivy League, that play all over. I know that when you watch him, the ball comes out of his arm different than anyone else I've really watched."
It is that arm strength from the 6-foot-4 Mathews that may separate him from many of the 2014 QBs. He can zip the ball all over the field, making him a fit for either a vertical-based attack like the one Bruce Arians utilized with Andrew Luck in Indianapolis last season or a more horizontal, West Coast offense.
The current Cornell scheme is an intricate one, implemented by former Big Red and current Hamilton Tiger Cats coach Kent Austin, which utilizes the shotgun, pistol and under-center looks. Archer also points out that Cornell's offense involves a "complex adjustment package," one that asks both the quarterback and receivers to make multi-level reads after the snap.
Mathews, a student of the game, has had no issues digesting the playbook.
"He's really knowledgeable of the offense, and this is not an easy offense," Hurd says. "He can tell exactly where the ball's gonna go, based on one movement from a defensive player.
"He studies more film ... he's here during the summer, up in the offices all the time watching film on his own. He gets it."
Mathews put in some extra work under center in the spring -- he played out of the shotgun in high school, so he has more experience dropped back off the line. According to Hurd, he and Mathews also practiced extensively at getting quicker with his release, especially out of the shotgun.
And it is Mathews' footwork that may eventually make or break his draft stock. Mathews has completed better than 61 percent of his passes at Cornell, but early scouting reports question whether or not he can move well enough, both in and out of the pocket, to succeed at the next level.
"He's made a really concerted effort this offseason to get better at his footwork, and it's beginning to show," says Archer, who has to replace three key receivers this season, which could put a dent in Mathews' stats.
Reeling in Mathews' arm strength also can be a challenge at times, too. Mathews tossed 11 interceptions last season in nine games, matching his 2012 INT total. "You want to balance that, because you want that gunslinger mentality," Archer says. "He thinks, 'I can make any throw,' but like anybody he'll make a mistake. The great thing about him is he always wants to learn from it."
Will Mathews put his improvements on display frequently enough for the NFL eyes watching, though? Cornell's Ivy League schedule features fewer games (just 10, compared to the FBS standard of 12) and close to nil national-TV opportunities. So, Mathews needs to continue to excel in front of a reduced audience throughout this season, then shine when the combine rolls around next year.
There is an extended gap between now and when Mathews could become just the second FCS QB this millennium to be a Round 1 pick (Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco, from Delware is the other). But his current coaching staff is more than convinced Mathews has what it takes to make the jump. "He's the kind of young man that would enjoy that process and revel in it," Archer says. "Any of those intangible, offseason character traits, I could find multiple people that would give Jeff Mathews an A-plus in every category."