Jermaine Mathews Jr.’s Confidence, Competitiveness and Focus Made Him Ready to Step Up Against Penn State

By Dan Hope on October 26, 2023 at 3:50 pm
Jermaine Mathews Jr.

Jim Knowles said he didn’t think Jermaine Mathews Jr. “knew how big the moment was” in his standout performance off the bench against Penn State, but that wasn’t entirely true.

Mathews knew he was stepping into a high-pressure situation when he entered the cornerback rotation in place of Denzel Burke against Penn State. He just didn’t let it affect his play.

“I knew the moment was big, and I just really wanted to go in there and do my job and just ensure that we win the game,” Mathews said. “I was just playing football. I've been playing football my whole life. So I feel like the stage really don't matter. You gotta still go out there and play.”

Mathews has received universal praise from his Ohio State coaches and teammates since he played 47 snaps in the Buckeyes’ 20-12 win over the Nittany Lions last Saturday. With Burke sidelined by injury, Mathews entered the game whenever Jordan Hancock moved inside to play in the slot. The absence of the Buckeyes’ top cornerback didn’t stop them from a dominant defensive performance in which they held Penn State quarterback Drew Allar to only 4.5 yards per passing attempt, and how effectively Mathews stepped up had a lot to do with that.

Despite being a true freshman who had played only 46 total snaps as a Buckeye before the Penn State game, Mathews never looked overwhelmed against the Nittany Lions. He provided tight coverage throughout the game as an outside cornerback, allowing just three catches for 29 yards on seven targets according to Pro Football Focus, while he recorded a pass breakup and made three tackles.

In recognition of his performance, College Football Network named Mathews the national freshman of the week, and his fellow Buckeyes felt that honor was well-earned.

“I was very impressed,” said Ohio State safety Josh Proctor. “It felt like he was built for that moment, honestly. It wasn't too big for him. He went out there and he played like a vet that’s been out there before.”

Less than two years ago, it’s unlikely anyone would have envisioned Mathews already being where is now. Going into the summer of 2022, Mathews was a three-star recruit who didn’t even have an offer from the Buckeyes. But that all began to change when Mathews attended Ohio State’s first recruiting camp of that June and had a dominant showing in one-on-one drills that had the likes of Burke and other Buckeyes telling their coaches to offer Mathews on the spot.

Mathews got that offer, committed to Ohio State just one month later and proceeded to soar up the recruiting rankings thanks to an excellent senior season at Winton Woods High School. By the end of the 2023 recruiting cycle, Mathews was ranked as the No. 51 overall prospect in his class, making him the second-highest ranked recruit (behind only wide receiver Brandon Inniss) among Ohio State’s 2023 commits.

“I feel like everything just happened for a reason, and I feel like I'm just blessed to just be in this position,” Mathews said Wednesday, when he became Ohio State’s first true freshman to meet with the media this season. “So I just take everything in, don't take anything for granted.”

Enrolling early at Ohio State in January allowed Mathews to immediately start competing to climb the depth chart this spring, and he cemented his spot on the Buckeyes’ two-deep in the fourth quarter of Ohio State’s blowout win over Western Kentucky when he returned his first collegiate interception for a 58-yard touchdown.

Prior to the Penn State game, Mathews gave the Buckeyes more evidence that they could trust him against Purdue, when he stepped in at cornerback after Burke left the game with injury while he made a big impact on special teams with two tackles inside the 20-yard line in kickoff coverage.

Having gone up against Mathews in practice since the spring, Marvin Harrison Jr. said he could tell early on that Mathews would be ready to contribute early.

“He’s just a talented guy. You see it right away, from the first play that he played,” Harrison said. “He just has a dog mentality, he's gonna go out there and he's gonna compete each and every play. Obviously he's super quick, he gets in and out of his breaks really well. Smart guy, plays with leverage, but he's a very technical guy.”

Much like Burke, who started right away for Ohio State as a true freshman, Mathews exudes a natural confidence in his ability. Knowles has described it as “moxie,” a word Mathews admitted he had to look up in the dictionary; Proctor says he thinks Mathews plays well because he doesn’t overthink things.

“I wouldn't say like he's not a serious person, but he doesn't take everything too serious. He likes to live in the moment,” Proctor said. “He knows who he is. He's confident in himself. And so are we.”

“It felt like he was built for that moment, honestly. It wasn't too big for him. He went out there and he played like a vet that’s been out there before.”– Josh Proctor on Jermaine Mathews Jr.’s play vs. Penn State

Mathews attributes his early success to a blend of both confidence and consistent focus.

“At the cornerback position, you gotta have a short memory, you gotta be mentally strong because one missed move, one bad move is a touchdown or it’s a big play so you gotta really be on everything,” Mathews said. “And I think it's really just staying focused. You got to stay focused every play, you can't take a play off, because they’re going to come for you.

“You gotta have confidence when you’re at corner. So I feel like keeping your confidence up is just gonna make you play better. So I feel like I'm a confident player, and I think I'm very confident in what I can do on the football field.”

Ryan Day described Mathews as “one of the more competitive guys that we had in this incoming class.” Kyle McCord took it a step further, calling Mathews “one of the most competitive kids on the team.”

“When he got here, it didn't matter if he was going against Marvin or a freshman receiver, he's going to bring the same exact intensity, the same exact focus to every single rep,” McCord said. “It kind of reminded me of Denzel’s freshman year when he started, his eyes lit up at the opportunity to play against good competition.”

How much Mathews plays this week and beyond could depend on the availability of Burke, as Burke, Davison Igbinosun and Jordan Hancock remain likely to play the vast majority of cornerback snaps when all three are healthy. But Day says the Buckeyes will be counting on Mathews to be ready whenever they might need him, and Day believes Mathews will be as long as he keeps working the way he has so far.

“He loves to compete, and the moment wasn't too big for him, and now he’s gotta be consistent,” Day said. “It's one thing to do it, now it's another thing to do it multiple weeks in a row. So he did step up in a big way. And he has made a lot of progress from when he came in. But that's part of being a freshman. Part of it is the football part of it, the other part is just the overall maturation of a young man.”

Beyond this year, the future certainly looks bright for Mathews, who could be in the mix for a starting job next year if Burke enters the 2024 NFL draft. But Mathews isn’t trying to look too far ahead yet, knowing his job right now is just making sure he’s ready to play whenever he’s needed each week.

“I just want to take it day by day every day, just keep getting better,” Mathews said.

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