Clay’s feat: walk on, hold off, move up

Times Staff Writer

“Clay, do you want to go in?”

The offer always came in the waning moments of blowouts, a time when nonscholarship football players are rewarded for sacrifice and hard work in practice.

USC Coach Pete Carroll asked. So did linebackers coach Ken Norton.

“Clay, do you want to go in?”

The year was 2004. USC was in the midst of an undefeated national championship season. Clay Matthews, an unheralded freshman walk-on from one of the most heralded families in Trojans football history, could have jumped at the chance to be on the field late in the fourth quarter.


“Clay, do you want to go in?”

Matthews turned down the opportunity. Every time.

“I knew that I was capable of so much more,” he said.

Matthews was right, and by redshirting his first season, he gave himself another year to develop, another year to grow.

In 2006, Matthews earned a scholarship. Today, the fifth-year senior is a nimble, ball-hawking defensive end and NFL prospect for college football’s top-ranked team.

Former walk-on linebacker Collin Ashton started two games in 2005 because of injuries, but Matthews’ ascent from walk-on to significant contributor at the outset of a season is unprecedented for anyone but a kicking-game specialist who has come to USC during Carroll’s eight seasons.

“He does give hope to a lot of guys because he wasn’t big enough and he wasn’t fast enough, but he is now,” Carroll said. “Now, he’s perfect.”

Far from it, says the 6-foot-3, 240-pound Matthews, who embraces his walk-on roots.

Check, for example, Matthews’ photo in USC’s media guide. He has refused to allow USC’s sports information office to change it since his redshirt freshman season in 2005. With close-cropped hair and a serious expression, the boyish Matthews bears little resemblance to the long-locked senior who already this season has forced two fumbles, recovered two others and recorded two sacks.

“My mom always says I’m more handsome than that and I need to take a new picture,” Matthews said. “But I kind of like it because it shows where I’ve come from: the skinny walk-on.”

Matthews’ humble start at USC belies his bloodline. His father, Clay, was an All-American linebacker at USC, his uncle Bruce an All-American offensive lineman. Both enjoyed long and distinguished NFL careers.

But Matthews’ road to USC was not gilded with accolades.

“He was a real late bloomer,” his father said.

As a junior at Agoura High, Matthews was 6-1 and weighed about 165 pounds. His body ached from growing pains and his father, the team’s defensive coordinator, declined to start him.

“His mom was giving me the business, but he wasn’t ready,” the elder Matthews said, chuckling. “He wasn’t very big and he wasn’t very strong.”

Matthews continued to grow during his senior season but drew interest only from local community colleges.

Rather than pursuing that route, Matthews told his father he wanted to walk on at USC, where brother Kyle was a walk-on safety in 2003.

“I knew I was capable of playing with the best athletes in the nation,” Matthews said. “I thought I could come in here, day one, and be the guy.

“Maybe I was crazy to have that mind-set, but obviously that’s better than saying you can’t.”

After redshirting in 2004, Matthews was a special-teams standout and also played as a reserve linebacker in 2005, a year that saw the arrival of freshman linebackers Rey Maualuga, Brian Cushing and Kaluka Maiava.

On the first day of training camp in 2006, Carroll rewarded Matthews with a scholarship.

“I would be lying if I said I wasn’t expecting it,” Matthews said. “I noted my progression. I was competing with five-star guys and holding my own.”

Matthews continued to play as a reserve linebacker over the next two years, starting twice last season in place of the injured Cushing, against Nebraska and Washington State.

Last spring, defensive coordinator Nick Holt, Carroll and Norton decided to try Matthews at the “elephant” position, essentially a speedy linebacker who stands up along the line of scrimmage.

Matthews was sad to leave the linebackers but embraced the new role. Though ends Kyle Moore and Everson Griffen start, Matthews rotates into the lineup throughout the game.

“They want someone flying around to the ball,” Matthews said. “That’s what they expect of me, and I’m trying not to disappoint.”

Matthews, tied for second on the team with 12 tackles, is part of a unit that ranks first nationally in scoring defense and second in total defense.

After performing well against Virginia tackle Eugene Monroe and Ohio State’s Alex Boone, he has another chance to increase his NFL stock when he goes against Oregon State’s Andy Levitre on Thursday night.

But before making what was once regarded as an unlikely jump to the pros, Matthews intends to bookend his career with another national title. Offensive lineman Jeff Byers, defensive back Josh Pinkard, tight end Jimmy Miller and defensive tackle Fili Moala are the other current players who were members of USC’s 2004 national championship team.

Matthews has no regrets about sitting out that season, which provided the springboard for the last four.

“I think I exceeded everyone’s expectations,” he said, “including my own.”




at Oregon State (1-2, 0-1)

Thursday, 6 p.m., ESPN