Jacob Matuska was the second of 24 freshman to pledge to Brian Kelly’s 2013 recruiting class, one that has since developed as the program’s best since the smaller 2009 haul that included Manti Te’o, Tyler Eifert, Zack Martin, Chris Watt, Zeke Motta, Cierre Wood, and Theo Riddick.
Matuska made the difficult transition from (primarily) tight end to defensive end in 2013 and thereafter inside to defensive tackle for new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s 4-3 front last fall.
After being buried on the depth chart for much of 2014, injuries to the squad’s starters and key reserves afforded Matuska late-season playing time – including a start at USC. That assimilation to competitive, extended action provided Matuska a leg up on a bevy of younger competitors entering practice last spring.
Steps taken since and hereafter will determine his role next fall.
Matuska capitalizes on a strong conclusion to Spring Ball 2015 with additional weight room strides over the summer. He thereafter puts forth a consistent effort through August camp, earning a role as the unit’s “swing” defender along the Irish interior, one that would provide opportunities as the No. 3 nose tackle (behind senior Jarron Jones and true freshman Jerry Tillery) as well as the No. 3 defensive tackle spot (behind senior Sheldon Day and sophomore Jay Hayes).
Third-string competitors include sophomore Daniel Cage – last year’s backup to Jones on the nose – and redshirt-freshman Pete Mokwuah, who, like Matuska, made a late push in spring ball.
Matuska fails to fend off Cage and Mokwuah inside as both appear to have greater upside – at least when in playing shape -- and the junior falls to No. 4 on the depth chart which equates largely to scout team duties.
Though the above scenario is arguably better for the program (young players surging forward on the depth chart) it would be unfortunate for Matuska’s career arc.
Upon closer examination of spring ball and his yeoman effort last November, it seems unlikely that Matuska won’t be called upon in some manner next September for work among the defensive line rotation. The key will be holding off younger competitors as the season progresses – it’s a crowded house along the backup ranks of the Irish defensive interior.
Statistically and in terms of taking advantage of opportunities provided via injury, Matuska’s career arc to date is nearly identical to former Notre Dame starter and Cleveland Browns draft pick Bob Dahl.
Dahl redshirted as a freshman in 1987 before earning a backup role as a sophomore for the 1988 Irish, playing in five games (Matuska played in six) and registering five tackles (Matuska finished with six last season).
Dahl played because of injuries to Tom Gorman and John Foley while Matuska received his chance due to injuries suffered by Jarron Jones and Daniel Cage.
Like Matuska, Dahl registered a sack in his first extended action (Stanford). Ideally, Matuska would mirror Dahl’s third season at the program as well – 52 tackles and 13 starts for a 12-1 Fighting Irish squad in 1989.
Though he was primarily a tight end at Bishop Hartley High School (Columbus, Ohio), Matuska was dubbed the nation’s No. 32 defensive end prospect per Scout.com and awarded four-start status, even earning a spot among the final Scout 300 (#299).
Ohio’s No. 2 ranked DE (#5 in the Midwest) redshirted as a freshman as projected, then earned playing time late last season though that was largely the result of myriad injuries suffered by starters and second unit interior defenders.
Despite his official recruiting status, it’s fair to posit Matuska is ahead of the career arc expected by most that cover the Irish as he appeared to be “recruited over” by the 2014 and 2015 classes, yet remains in contention for a game day role.
After failing to appear in five of the season’s first 10 games last season, Matuska was thrust into action on Senior Day for the underdog Irish in a matchup with Louisville. Though he had recorded just one career tackle (vs. Rice) previously, Matuska responded with a five-tackle outing, one that included a sack of Cardinals quarterback Reggie Bonnafon.
Matuska also shined on the final defensive series, recording a stop for no gain defending the Irish goal line, part of a three-play, three-freshmen (Matuska, Jay Hayes, Greer Martini) goal line stand that held the Cardinals to a (missed) field goal in a 31-28 contest.
“Matuszak, I keep saying Matuszak…I wish I had Matuszak.”
-- Head coach Brian Kelly who, on multiple occasions, mistakenly (and humorously) referred to his sophomore defensive lineman as “Matuszak” in reference to John Matuszak, an Oakland Raiders standout of the 1970s.