Camp started: Thursday
Opener: Ole Miss in Nashville on Aug. 29 (ESPN at 9:15 p.m.)
Fun fact: Vanderbilt scored 390 points last season, the most by the Commodores since the 1915 team that beat Henderson-Brown 100-0 on its way to totaling 514 points.
In a Southeastern Conference filled with five-star talents such as Alabama tailback T.J. Yeldon and South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, there is still room for Vanderbilt receiver Jordan Matthews.
Matthews is the league’s top returning receiver, having caught 94 passes for 1,323 yards last season for a Commodores team that won its last seven games and finished 9-4. The 6-foot-3, 206-pounder from Madison, Ala., has savored every autumn Saturday and won’t change that in his final season.
“I don’t think people really understand how much this really means to me,” Matthews said at SEC media days. “Vanderbilt was my only scholarship offer, and when I say only, I mean Division I, Division II, Division III and NAIA. Vanderbilt was the only school that gave me an opportunity, so now I go in there each week and play with that chip on my shoulder.”
The leader of all active SEC receivers with 2,290 career yards, Matthews does not rack up his totals against the scrubs of the college football world. In the past two seasons against SEC foes, he has averaged 116.9 yards a game, topped by a 171-yard performance at Florida in 2011 and a 153-yard showing at Ole Miss last season.
Matthews was a unanimous all-conference selection last season and was an obvious first-team preseason pick this summer.
“He works probably the hardest out of everybody on the team,” senior cornerback Andre Hal said. “He’s an All-American, and he still works like he’s a third-teamer.”
Despite being a lightly regarded recruit, Matthews got in every game as a true freshman in 2010 and started the finale against Wake Forest. He had 15 catches for 184 yards and four touchdowns that season and came back in 2011 with 41 receptions for 783 yards and five scores.
Matthews has a source of inspiration that seems to work: His mother is a first cousin of legendary San Francisco 49ers receiver Jerry Rice.
“Jerry Rice is the best ever, and that’s who I model my game after,” said Matthews, who went with his family to watch Rice play when Rice was finishing his career with Oakland. “He was a technician when it came to running routes and catching the ball, but he was also humble and a guy you wanted to be like.”
Jordan Rodgers was Vanderbilt’s starting quarterback the past two seasons, though Austyn Carta-Samuels did get the nod in last year’s 58-0 rout of Presbyterian. Carta-Samuels is the starter now, and Matthews said the transition this spring was smooth.
Matthews and Carta-Samuels will be roommates this season.
“Austyn Carta-Samuels is a good quarterback who is going to surprise a lot of people,” Matthews said. “He’s going to be one of the best quarterbacks in this conference by season’s end. The chemistry I have built with him didn’t just start in the spring, because we worked together even when Jordan Rodgers was the quarterback.”
Vanderbilt also has junior Chris Boyd, who had 50 catches for 774 yards and five touchdowns last season. The offense must replace 1,141-yard rusher Zac Stacy, but Wesley Tate and Brian Kimbrow are very capable candidates.
Seven starters return on each side of the ball for the Commodores, who insist they have plenty of motivation following last season’s closing surge.
“Last year, I think people started recognizing us as that hungriest team in the SEC,” Matthews said. “Now they’re thinking we’ve reached our peak and that we’ve got our nine wins and that we’re now going back to the cellar. We have a great senior-laden team that is very hungry.
“We’ve gone from all right to good. We’ve made that step. Now we’re wanting to make the step from good to great, and that starts in week one.”