Former four-star prospect Cliff Matthews, a Cheraw native, finished his Gamecock career in 2010 as a team captain. He helped lead South Carolina to the program's first-ever SEC East championship and is revered by fans and the USC coaching staff as one of the hardest workers and best players to don the Garnet and Black.
Matthews, a 7th round NFL Draft selection by the Atlanta Falcons, recently took out some time to go in-depth with GamecockCentral.com on his career as a Gamecock. This is the first installment of the feature.
CLARK: Let's go all the way back to 2006. You made your college decision in October of that year. Take me through the recruiting process and why you ended up choosing South Carolina.
MATTHEWS: I enjoyed the recruiting process. One thing I wanted to do before my senior year of high school football was to go ahead and make my mind up where I wanted to go. Pretty much after the Auburn game, what Coach Spurrier said to me, that paved the road.
It's closer to home so all my friends and family could come see me and support me. I wanted to play early as a freshman. Now that I look back on it, I wish I could have redshirted because these four years flew by fast. They said it was going to go by fast, but they didn't say it would fly by.
CLARK: If I remember correctly, your decision came to to South Carolina and two other schools.
MATTHEWS: I was offered by a lot of schools, especially on the east coast and got it down to three: Georgia, South Carolina, and Clemson. Throughout the recruiting process, it came down to South Carolina and Georgia. It was pretty close, but I made the right decision. It all paid off. I met a lot of people. It was a fun experience, me getting out of the state of South Carolina and going to a NIKE camp in Florida and then another camp at Georgia.
CLARK: So you get to Columbia in 2007 for your first year. Do you remember your first game at South Carolina? What was it like, and was it what you expected?
MATTHEWS: It was everything I expected and even more. I think we were playing Louisiana-Lafayette. I remember it play for play. I got in the game about third quarter. I was amped and ready. I started off at defensive end. My first play in, I actually made a tackle. I think I ran down the tailback on a sweep.
CLARK: You played linebacker mostly your freshman season.
MATTHEWS: I started off at defensive end. Casper Brinkley, who was a linebacker, they moved him to the defensive end position and moved me to linebacker. So I played linebacker the rest of that year.
CLARK: You guys started off well during your freshman season. You went to Georgia and won in the second game of the season.
MATTHEWS: Yes sir, beat them at their place. At one time, we were 6-1 and ranked high in the nation. We were getting a lot of publicity and respect. It was nice for the first six games, now. The next ones, not so much. It was nice to be on top for a while.
CLARK: And in the game against North Carolina, you guys squeezed out a close (21-15) win and after that, lost the last five games of the season. Did you feel like that North Carolina game was a turning point of the season?
MATTHEWS: I remember after the UNC game, Coach Spurrier said if you guys don't start playing better, your luck will run out. He warned us before we went downhill and then we went downhill fast.
CLARK: What do you attribute that to?
MATTHEWS: I guess we ran out of juice. Whatever it was, we ran out of it.
CLARK: Before your sophomore season, you moved back to defensive end. Was that something you asked to do or did the coaching staff make the decision?
MATTHEWS: Whenever coach Ellis Johnson first got here, I guess they felt like I was a better defensive end than linebacker. I had been playing that pretty much all my life.
CLARK: I want to quickly recap the 2008 season. In that season, you guys start off with a 34-0 win over NC State, then lose close ones to Georgia who was number two (nationally), and LSU and at the end of the season, lose three straight to Florida, Clemson, and then the bowl game against Iowa. Talk to me about the end of that particular season.
MATTHEWS: We didn't finish as strong as we wanted to, but we got a lot of experience playing against guys like (Tim) Tebow. What he did to us (seven touchdown performance) made us a better team the next year. I don't know, we just didn't finish that season.
CLARK: The next year is 2009, your junior season. You guys lost close ones to Georgia, Alabama, and Florida who was number one (nationally) but beat number four Ole Miss and broke through with a win against Clemson.
MATTHEWS: We started playing better. We got more players on the team. I guess that's when the team starting caring more and the program turned around a little bit.
CLARK: That's one thing I want to address. Anytime I ask about summer workouts now, I always hear about one hundred percent participation and how hard everyone is working. Was it that way when you first arrived?
MATTHEWS: It was maybe fifty percent participation. In the summer, some guys came, some guys didn't. Whatever it was, it just wasn't there. My junior year, we put all the pieces together. Coach Fitz, he put his foot down and got us to where we needed to be.
CLARK: What do you think changed to make that happen?
MATTHEWS: I think that class of 2007, our first two years, we didn't do much of anything, you know. One reason why we came to South Carolina was to win. I guess it was a lack of leadership by some of the players who were here my freshmen and sophomore year. They didn't do it the way it's supposed to be done. The class of 2007, we learned from that and weren't putting up with it anymore. We met with Coach Spurrier and he made some changes. It turned out pretty good.
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