UGA head coach Kirby Smart praises player performance in G-Day scrimmage
D’Wan Mathis, Georgia’s freshman quarterback making his first appearance for the Bulldogs, took the shotgun snap and handed the ball to running back James Cook. Cook darted left, then pulled up and flipped the ball to receiver Matt Landers, who sprinted towards the Georgia “G” in the center of Sanford Stadium’s grass field.
Landers didn’t waste one second. The redshirt sophomore, who took snaps at quarterback during his high school days at Fort Lauderdale High, rolled to the right, kept his eyes downfield, and zeroed in on his target: Mathis, who was running a wheel route up the sideline.
Landers set his feet, like an experienced quarterback, with a defender bearing down on him, and let fly up the field towards the streaking Mathis. His throw found the wide-open Mathis, who outran the safety to the end zone.
“I was ready for (the trick play),” Landers said. “Just to see the outcome of it, because, you know, a lot of trick plays don’t work. My first trick play ever and we accomplished it.”
For a moment, a flash of life in an otherwise not-flashy spring game. On that frigid April afternoon, Georgia’s fans didn’t have much to cheer about. For about six seconds, they did.
Landers probably won’t throw many more double-reverse-pass touchdowns (when was the last time UGA called one during a game?). His high school coach, Joe Fabrizio, said Landers mostly played quarterback out of the wildcat formation. The St. Petersburg Green Devils never ran any plays for Landers similar to that G-Day trick play, Fabrizio said.
But, somewhat-quarterback past aside, Landers just might be Georgia’s answer at a position group Kirby Smart admitted he does not feel confident in. Only two real contributors at receiver remain on the roster from last season (Tyler Simmons and Jeremiah Holloman), and Demetris Robertson missed the spring game with an undisclosed illness.
“We just don’t have numbers,” Smart said. “It’s the thinnest position — there, d-line and tight end. I’ve said it over and over and over, and it’s probably more concerning than tight end, because those guys play on special teams.”
‘When he walked in the door’
Fabrizio remembers the moment he realized Landers could be a special talent. It wasn’t a freak one-handed catch or a 100-yard game, though.
“When you look at him, he’s the epitome of what an NFL-size receiver looks like,” Fabrizio said. “He’s got the speed to go along with it, and the hands to go along with it.”
Landers is 6-foot-5 and 200 pounds, and the Green Devils used every inch of that lengthy frame during his days in St. Petersburg. His senior year, he amassed 700 yards receiving and hauled in seven touchdowns. The season prior, while playing at Admiral Farragut Academy, he amassed 1,038 yards and 15 touchdowns
Landers was a three-star (out of five) prospect out of high school, across the three major recruiting rankings: Rivals, 247 Sports and ESPN. He signed his letter-of-intent with Georgia in February 2017.
“His ability just to muscle people, as big as he was, made it easy for us to throw 10-to-12-yard comebacks, curls and those type of things,” Fabrizio said. “No one could get around him, honestly.”
An important offseason ahead
Landers did not tear up the field upon his arrival to Georgia. He redshirted his freshman season in 2017, and appeared in only four games last season.
Most of that is probably due to Georgia’s depth at receiver the past two seasons. The Bulldogs had the experienced trio of Mecole Hardman, Terry Godwin and Riley Ridley, as well as the duo of Simmons and Robertson.
The roster was even more packed in 2018, when 2018 NFL Draft pick Javon Wims topped off the Bulldog receiving corps.
“I came in and, talent-wise and making plays, I was doing that,” Landers said. “But there were guys ahead of me, older cast who were already in the playbook, and they bought in more.”
Now, the upcoming offseason is likely one of the more important in Landers’ Bulldog career.
Georgia’s receiver room will get a lot more crowded once fall camp rolls around. Signees George Pickens and Dominick Blaylock, two major receiver recruits, both bring a breadth of talent to Athens. Makiya Tongue is another highly-rated recruit.
And there’s Lawrence Cager, the 6-foot-5 graduate transfer from Miami who will also be on the roster next season.
“I know the kids we’ve got coming in, but I don’t know how they’re going to respond,” Smart said. “I don’t know how they’re going to respond the first time they get hit in the mouth, the first time they’ve got to compete against a guy one-on-one and answer the bell.”
So, the opportunity is certainly there for Landers to force his way into a starting spot. But a big part of that rests on how much he improves this offseason.
“I like adversity, I like getting past adversity,” Landers said. “It’s just putting in more work off the field. This offseason is going to be a big offseason for me. I’ve got to work harder than I ever have before.”
Landers said he doesn’t consider himself a big vocal leader but sees himself as more of a lead-by-example player. But it’s his consistency, especially in his first two seasons in Athens, that he says he must improve.
Landers has yet to catch a single pass in a regular-season (or post-season) game at Georgia.
Even his G-Day numbers weren’t flashy: two catches for 54 yards, with 52 of them coming on one throw from quarterback Stetson Bennett.
“Sometimes I’ll make a play, or sometimes I’ll start off bad, then I’ve just got to get my head right and get back in the game,” Landers said. “From here on out, I’ve just got to start off good and end good.”
Landers said he wants to improve his play after fatigue sets in, and be better about arriving on-time to workouts and practices. He mentioned former Bulldogs Sony Michel, Nick Chubb, Isaiah Wynn, Godwin and Ridley by name, as five guys who helped him adjust to the environment at Georgia.
“I’ve got to play a big role in this team,” Landers said. “We lost a lot of guys, so I want to be that player that can make plays.”
But he needs the consistency. Landers dropped two passes during the Bulldogs’ spring scrimmage and had another ball that was within his catching radius (in other words, a pass that was catchable).
“I don’t feel like I’ve earned a spot,” Landers said. “Nothing is given to you, you’ve got to learn everything. I’m going to go into the fall with the same mindset I had in the spring: going hard and giving everything I’ve got.”