Tucked in the back corner of the Buckingham Room in the Wynfrey Hotel, Auburn defensive back Tray Matthews fielded questions from a horde of reporters at SEC Media Days Thursday.
Matthews is a veteran dealing with inquiries at this point. Going into his senior season at Auburn, he’s looked at as one of the most accountable Tigers and the leader of the defense, according to head coach Gus Malzahn. He was asked a variety of questions from the scrum surrounding him, some more personal than others.
At one point, he takes a question about fellow defensive back Jamel Dean, a Tiger who’s been held back due to injuries. What does Matthews offer up to a guy like Dean who’s so anxious to contribute but can’t stay healthy?
“Keep going and don’t give up,” Matthews said. “That’s the worst thing you can do, give up.”
Matthews is a walking testament to the never-quit mentality. The Newnan, Ga., native started his career at Georgia and showed true promise before off-the-field problems proved too much. Kicked off the team, he headed west to Auburn, where he worked to repair his damaged image and make a few plays along the way.
“I’m the type of guy who never gives up,” Matthews said. “If I fall down one million times, I’m going to get back up every single time. That’s the thing about me: I just never give up.”
Matthews had a bright future ahead in the spring of 2014. As a freshman during the 2013 season, he found his way onto the field, playing in nine games and making 36 tackles. He looked ready to live up to the hype that surrounds a four-star prospect and showed flashes of being a difference maker for the Bulldogs’ secondary.
Then, Matthews couldn’t stay out of trouble.
He was arrested in March 2014 along with three other Georgia players on theft-by-deception charges involving check fraud. Georgia head coach Mark Richt opted not to suspend the talent safety during spring, offering in late May that Matthews was “on a turning point.”
Just a few days later, however, Matthews was thrown out of a summer class for causing a disruption, which proved to be the last straw. Richt kicked Matthews off the team, leaving him searching for somewhere else to go.
I'm sorry UGA family.I swear to God I love yal.I'm crying right now but I won't forget. Love the dawgs.Auburn or Louisville will be my home— TriggaTray (@Trigga_Tray28) June 3, 2014
After considering Louisville and former defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, Matthews opted to become a Tiger.
“I was so used to being in Georgia and being at Georgia,” Matthews said. “You’re going from one home to another home. It was a process, but I trusted the process and kept my faith in God. I knew everything was going to work out.”
Matthews joined Auburn that fall but redshirted, meaning 2015 was his first chance to play. He worked his way into the Tigers’ secondary that fall, appearing in 10 games and making two interceptions.
For Malzahn, Matthews had to develop a rapport with the team before he could truly contribute.
“He had to earn everybody’s respect -- teammates’ respect, coaches’ respect and really my respect,” Malzahn said. “He did that and then some.”
Matthews returned in 2016 and delivered on the flashes of excellence he had shown at both schools. He led the Tigers in tackles and played a pivotal role for an Auburn defense that finished seventh in the country in scoring defense. With Matthews’ help on the back end of the unit, the Tigers only allowed 14 passing touchdowns in 13 games.
Entering his senior season, Matthews said he has no doubt about his improvements. He said the game has slowed down tremendously for him, explaining that his knowledge at safety makes everything so much easier. Along with his game getting better, he said his maturity is the biggest difference from his time in Athens to now.
That much is clear from Malzahn’s high praise.
“To have a chance to win championships, you’ve got to have great leaders,” Malzahn said. “Right now, I’d say our leadership is as good as it’s been since I’ve been here. He’s a big part of that.”
The transition from being a transfer just trying to fit in to a leader who happens to make timely plays was something Matthews had to work toward. Malzahn gave him that chance, and this time, Matthews was determined not to squander it.
“I take pride in everything that I do,” Matthews said. “I put in a lot of work and a lot of late nights. I’m very proud of myself. I’m going to keep getting better just for the team.”
Though his ship has figuratively been righted, Matthews has yet to beat Georgia since he became a Tiger. Would snapping that streak and getting the last laugh be the perfect close to Matthews’ comeback?
“People always ask me (about beating Georgia), but it doesn’t really matter,” Matthews said. “I want a championship. That’s what it all comes down to -- a ring.”
Jordan D. Hill: 770-894-9818, @lesports