Before Mickey Matthews’ first spring practice as Coastal Carolina’s new defensive coordinator last month, he was talking off to the side of the field about his return to coaching and settling in with the Chanticleers when the team’s typical practice music suddenly came blaring through the portable speakers.
The jolt of thumping bass startled him a bit – part of the adjustment process to his new environs.
To that point, the former James Madison head coach also mentioned how he had gotten lost a number of times driving from campus to his new residence in Myrtle Beach, but he felt he was getting his bearings finally.
In most other regards, Matthews says his return to coaching after two years away working as a television analyst has been rather seamless.
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“If you enjoy coaching football, it’s in your blood. You love the smell of the grass and being around kids,” he said. “I’ve told many people this, I don’t know if I missed Saturday[s] that much. I’ve always enjoyed Saturday and the competition, but the one thing I’ve really missed being out of coaching and the reason I got back in was the mentorship of kids.”
Matthews’ hiring in January to replace former defensive coordinator Clayton Carlin, who was let go after four seasons, was the biggest offseason story for the program.
The thing I’m the best at and the thing I enjoy the most is coaching college football. It’s been a lot of fun. There’s been zero negative; it’s all been really positive.
CCU defensive coordinator Mickey Matthews
Matthews won an FCS national championship in 2004 during his 15-year run at James Madison and is now charged with reshaping the Chants’ inconsistent defense. The program begins its two-year transition to the FBS level and readies for its debut in the Sun Belt Conference in 2017 after playing out this coming season as an FCS independent.
“I think the players have really done an excellent job of reacting to him,” Chants head coach Joe Moglia said Friday . “I think he’s been able to introduce concepts that are easier for the players to grasp and we’re doing a better job of understanding our assignments and therefore making more plays and doing a better job of getting to the ball. I think he’s also done a good job of emphasizing just real good physical toughness and I think that’s also showed up.”
As expected with any coordinator change, Matthews has also begun to put his mark on the unit while tweaking the Chants’ 4-2-5 base defensive alignment, which relied on two linebackers and an extra nickelback, to a 4-3 look with three linebackers, including a hybrid “Hero” position.
Rising senior Alex Scearce, who was one of the Chants’ starting linebackers last season, opened the spring atop the depth chart at that Hero spot, which merges some of the responsibilities of an outside linebacker with those of a strong safety – or a “field linebacker,” as Matthews put it.
“It’s a good sized nickel, basically a bigger nickel, quick enough to cover slot receivers but also be aggressive in the run game, outside the box more often,” Scearce said.
Said Matthews: “It’s the most fun position on our team because you get to play man-to-man, you get to blitz, you get to play a little outside linebacker. The H stands for hybrid because he’s half linebacker and safety, but it’s a fun position to play.”
Moglia said he and Matthews discussed their defensive philosophies and such changes prior to his being hired, but ultimately Moglia stressed, he was more interested in the person he was hiring than the defense that would come along with him.
And so far he likes what he’s seen. Speaking Friday, Moglia rattled off some of his early impressions of Matthews to this point.
“There’s more energy. He’s far more dynamic and aggressive on the field,” he said. “You’re certainly aware that he’s on the field, the players are certainly aware he’s on the field. You see the same thing in terms of meetings. I think he teaches very, very simply and clearly and I think the guys are responding well to that.”
In taking over the defense Matthews said he watched some of the game tapes from last year – but not all – while diagnosing what he feels were the areas of weakness and looking to avoid repeating similar mistakes.
The Chants bring back six starters on defense, but in regard to personnel, Matthews said he didn’t want to form any preconceived opinions before getting to work with the players this spring.
“I tried not to draw any conclusions because I felt for the guys with a new coordinator it’s only fair we start on page one,” he said. “And certainly there are some older players who have performed very well here and we’re going to let those guys be our leaders, but certainly there’s going to be a lot of open competition for jobs and I think that’s only fair.”
While Matthews has had to familiarize himself with a new roster, the returning players have had to get used to new voice on the defensive side.
Carlin, his predecessor, was very well liked with his even-keeled steady demeanor. His defense had its moments, including posting two shutouts in a season last year for the first time in program history, but the unit was simply too erratic, as had been the case in previous years as well.
The Chants gave up 524 rushing yards in a 41-38 playoff loss to The Citadel for an early postseason exit and finished the year ranked 85th among FCS teams in total defense (416.3 yards allowed per game) despite ranking 19th in scoring defense in holding opponents to 20.1 points per game.
Matthews, meanwhile, built his resume with stops at Texas-El Paso, Houston, Texas Christian, Texas State (as defensive coordinator), Marshall (defensive coordinator) and Georgia before going 109-71 as the head coach at James Madison while receiving the prestigious Eddie Robinson FCS Coach of the Year award in 1999 and 2008.
A Texas native, he too projects an easy-going manner and won’t hesitate to sidle up to someone and fall immediately into conversation and story-telling mode.
That’s an aspect the players have quickly noticed.
“He’s a funny guy. You can tell when he talks, he’s got so much experience. He’s always telling us stories and getting us fired up throughout practice,” senior safety Richie Sampson said.
Added Scearce: “He’s got a story for everything and it’s amusing to hear everything he has to offer, and I think he’ll be a really good addition to our program.”
Fans are no doubt eager to see what impact he’ll have on the defense this fall, but they shouldn’t expect to gain too much insight from the spring game Saturday as Matthews isn’t ready to tip his hand just yet.
In explaining his preference for a 4-3 base scheme, he noted the need to be versatile with the proliferation of varied offenses these days and how more opponents work quick to limit defensive substitutions.
The biggest thing he hopes fans notice is the aggressiveness with which he wants the Chants to play.
“The tempo were going to play at is the biggest thing, especially up front,” he said. “If anyone knows me, we’re going to play an attacking style of defense. That’s what we’re installing.”
Sampson said overall the changes Matthews has made in alignment and approach have not been drastic to this point.
“It’s different in mentality a little bit, but a lot of the scheme stuff is similar,” he said. “Safeties have a little bit more freedom with certain things, but a lot of the stuff when you’ve played a long time you realize it’s very similar with little nuances here and there.”
It’s still a work in progress, of course, but after a decade and a half as a head coach and then two years away from coaching, Matthews does seem to truly be enjoying being back in this role.
And he says nothing has surprised him or tempered that excitement to this point.
“The thing I’m the best at and the thing I enjoy the most is coaching college football,” he said. “It’s been a lot of fun. There’s been zero negative; it’s all been really positive.”
CCU Football Spring Game
When | 1 p.m. Saturday
Where | Brooks Stadium, Conway
What | The spring “game” will open with the available healthy starters competing for the opening portion with no tackling before giving way to the second and third-teamers in more of a true scrimmage format.
Admission is free, gates open at noon, parking is first-come, first-served and coaches and players will be available afterward to meet with fans and sign autographs.