COVINGTON, Ga. — Mike Mathison made an acrobatic grab and an even more athletic move to get around a defender. He showed breakaway speed as he darted down the middle of the field, showing off his 4.43-second 40-yard dash time toward the end zone. He showed a kind of wiggle -- an elusiveness that triggers a certain reflex in people who’ve trained their eyes to spot the next college football prospect.
It was one of the first games I’d seen Mathison play, and when he made that aforementioned move, I reflexively grabbed my pen and jotted “No. 4. Newton” in my reporter’s notebook. I knew he was a guy I needed to keep an eye on.
Some athletes, when you look at them, you just know. Regardless of size, recruiting attention — or lack thereof — or any of the other supposed signs of the worth and potential of a college football prospect, you just know that someone’s going to look past the "undersized" label or any other negative descriptor, and nab that player and that player will have the chance to be special.
That’s how it was when I first watched Mathison play. Even before I knew his name, and all I saw was a player in a No. 4 blue and white jersey flying around the field making plays, the 5-foot-11, 170-pound Mathison had “big play” written all over him.
That’s why it comes as no surprise that UT-Chattanooga offered and Mathison pulled the trigger on his Division I college commitment Saturday evening, choosing UTC over a handful of other mid-major schools, while steadily drawing more attention from some of the big boys.
Saturday, Mathison took a pause from his unofficial visit at UTC to chat with me about the factors that went into his decision and the reasons why he wanted to shut his recruiting down before the 2018 season kicks off. He also gushed about how Newton's coaching staff and his family helped him keep a level head through it all.
STOVALL: What was it about UTC that made you decide to make it your college choice and who were the other schools that offered?
MATHISON: “First, UTC is in a great spot. It’s not too far from home, about two hours from Knoxville and two hours from Nashville. But after taking my unofficial visit today, it just seems like a perfect fit for me. They have big plans for me on the offensive side of the ball. they showed me multiple ways they were going to get me the ball like playing in the slot and on the outside, and lining up a little the backfield to create mismatches.
I’ll also have the opportunity to play and contribute to the team as a freshman. They will graduate five senior wideouts and there will be six left on scholarship, but none who fit the role they want me to play in the offense.”
STOVALL: I know you’ll be joining another Newton player, Dre Butler. What, if any, influence on your decision did playing with a Newton teammate have?
MATHISON: “I look forward to playing with Dre, but it didn’t necessarily influence my decision to choose UTC.”
STOVALL: In just a couple of months, you’ve gone from not many offers and underestimated to sought after and a D-1 committed player. How has this journey been for you, and how excited are you to know you’ll have a college football home next year?
MATHISON: “I actually got my first D1 offer in the spring before my junior year from Morgan State, but since then I have received offers from (Virginia University of Lynchburg), Seton Hill, Tuskegee, Southern Illinois, Albany State, Alabama A&M and UVA-Wise. I’ve always had a high ceiling, and wherever I go I’m going to put in work.”
STOVALL: How important was it for you to get the recruiting process done before the season starts?
MATHISON: “Really, I just wanted to get the recruiting over with and focus on getting this (championship) ring with my team for my senior season.”
STOVALL: People are always talking about your work ethic and humility. Where does that come from for you? How has Newton helped you get ready for college ball?
MATHISON: “Well, transitioning to college, they don’t care what you did in high school. You get a new start, and you have to work every day or you will not play a down. So my parents have always told me what I needed to hear, and not what I wanted to hear, and that has helped out a lot. Then Coach (Terrance) Banks helped guide me in making the best decision for me.
“Newton has helped me get ready for college ball by having coaches like Coach (Camiel) Grant and Coach (Josh) Skelton. If they say left-hand touch on suicides and you touch with your right, they are not going to let that fly. If your two inches short, they are not letting that fly. They teach us that the little things matter.”