Freshman Focus: Jacob Matuska

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One of the earliest members of the ’13 recruiting class, Jacob Matuska fits the profile that Brian Kelly and his staff target perfectly. Recruited by some schools as a tight end, Matuska instead will start on the defensive side of the ball, capable of growing into a 3-4 defensive end quickly as he begins to put weight on his impressive 6-foot-5, 250-pound frame.

Targeted early by the Irish coaching staff, Matuska will get the opportunity to watch and learn from an elite defensive front. Under the tutelage of Mike Elston, Matuska should develop into another point-of-attack player that’s got plenty of athleticism for a defensive end.

Let’s take a closer look at the Columbus native.

RECRUITING PEDIGREE

Matuska isn’t among the most heralded members of the Irish recruiting class, falling outside both Rivals and 247’s top 250. At the time of his commitment, Matuska had mostly regional offers, though Big Ten programs Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Nebraska all offered.

There’s plenty to like about the player the Irish are getting, a product of an elite football program at Bishop Hartley in Columbus, Ohio. Described as a “street-fight football player” by his high school coach, it’s clear that the Irish staff quickly saw something they liked in Matuska.

“He’s going to physically get bigger and stronger,” Kelly said on Signing Day. “We just like his work ethic. We’re really excited about him as a person.  He’s going to fit in well here at Notre Dame, and another young man that really adds to the depth that we’re looking for in our program.”

EARLY PLAYING TIME OPPORTUNITIES

While the depth chart still isn’t as deep as the coaching staff wants on the defensive line, it’s difficult to picture Matuska playing too much as a true freshman. While we’ll figure out where he is physically when camp opens in August, the rotation up front behind Sheldon Day and Stephon Tuitt will likely include guys like Tony Springmann and Justin Utupo, with Jarron Jones hopefully ready to contribute after spending his freshman season drinking from the fire hose.

Where things get interesting up front is next season. While Tuitt has talked about staying for his senior season and getting his degree, his pro potential might make that decision much tougher. Add into the mix the uncertainty of Chase Hounshell’s recovery from another devastating shoulder surgery, and there’s going to be a fierce competition at defensive end in the coming seasons, with some unproven players needing to step up.

Realistically, a redshirt season might be the best thing for Matuska, learning the ropes from an All-American like Tuitt and diving into the technical aspects of line play, a requirement for Mike Elston’s troops.

PROJECTING THE FUTURE

There’s no reason to mistake Matuska as just a big body that’ll eat space up front. That’s not giving his athleticism enough credit. Take listed 40 times with a really, really big grain of salt, but most websites list Matuska in the 4.7 range. Even if that’s a pipe dream, running a sub-5.0 time along the defensive line is impressive.

What remains to be seen is if Matuska can take that athleticism and use it to develop as a pass rusher. Finding linemen that can both hold up at the point of attack and get pressure on the quarterback is key in this system and will ultimately determine whether or not Matuska becomes a prime contributor.

Life after Nix and Tuitt should be interesting for the Irish on defense. Nobody expected to see the front seven of the Irish transform so quickly during Kelly’s three seasons in South Bend, so there’s every reason to believe that this coaching staff saw and identified something they liked in Matuska quickly.

Playing at a program that dominated Jaylon Smith’s Bishop Luers team 40-7, Matuska should have the developmental tools and mindset to mix it up in the trenches. Add in a big frame and some nice athleticism, and he’s got a good future.