AUBURN, Ala. — During Auburn's Outback Bowl practices in December, Will Muschamp had yet to take control of the defense. In that time, however, he was able to begin making mental notes of the players he was about to inherit. And one that stood out to him was a player who wasn't even eligible to play last season: Tray Matthews.
"Tray's a very physical player. I saw that in bowl practice," Muschamp said of the safety, who transferred to Auburn last summer. "Enjoys contact. ... Football's important to him. He really enjoys the game. He's constantly in the building watching film, asking questions. Works hard on the practice field."
Matthews arrived on the Plains last year after playing at Georgia in 2013. He was dismissed from the team last year after a pair of off-field issues: He was one of four Bulldogs charged with attempting to cash scholarship checks twice last March. Then last June, he reportedly caused a disruption during one of his summer classes, which led to the professor asking him to leave the room. Once news of the issue surfaced, Matthews was dismissed from the team by coach Mark Richt hours later.
After enrolling at Auburn last year, Matthews was forced to sit out the 2014 campaign to satisfy the NCAA's transfer rule. Coaches and teammates both praised his contributions as a member of the scout team. Now, he's expected to compete for one of starting spots at safety.
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"He's got some experience. He's played before," rising senior cornerback Jonathan Jones said. "He's had that eagerness to learn and eager to get out there with the rest of us (to) play defense."
In his one year with the Bulldogs, Matthews showed flashes of what he could do. The Newnan, Ga., native started six games at safety, collecting 36 tackles, snagging an interception and forcing a fumble. In a twist of sorts, his best game statistically came against Auburn, as he made a career-best 12 tackles in the memorable 2013 edition of the "Deep South's Oldest Rivalry."
The Tigers think he could do that and more this fall.
"Tray has been great, very physical in contact," said Johnathan "Rudy" Ford, a fellow defensive back who started all 13 games last season. "He’s going to be a great player playing alongside of him. He’s going to help us out a whole lot.”
Muschamp also commended Matthews' feel for the game.
"(He's) an instinctive player that's played a lot of football for a young player," the coach said. "And a guy that obviously has made some mistakes, learned from his mistake and moved on from those."
From his limited interactions with Matthews thus far, Muschamp could tell the safety's tumultuous time at Georgia has changed him. And they hope it's for the better.
"I don’t think there’s any question you get obviously humbled by some experiences you go through in life and certainly he has," Muschamp said. "Hats off to Coach (Gus) Malzahn and (athletics director) Jay Jacobs and Auburn University for giving a guy another opportunity."