TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – It’s not so much that D.J. Matthews had a bad attitude.
But he didn’t always have the right attitude, either.
So said Florida State’s junior receiver after Saturday’s Garnet and Gold Spring Game, during which he put up big numbers while offering a look at the progress he’s made over the last few weeks of spring camp, as well as a tantalizing glimpse of what could be coming this fall.
Leading the Garnet team’s receiving corps, Matthews had 10 receptions, 122 yards and one beautiful, one-handed grab over the middle of the field.
WATCH: D.J. Matthews recaps the Garnet and Gold Spring Game
Given the perpetual spotlight on Tamorrion Terry, as well as the buzz around FSU’s promising group of second-year receivers, Matthews’ star turn might have felt like a bit of a surprise.
But, to coach Willie Taggart, Matthews’ big day was nothing more than the first public display of what the Seminoles have been seeing for weeks on the practice fields.
“If you ask me who is the most improved player this spring, I’ve got to give it to D.J.,” Taggart said. “And that’s in every aspect.”
It’s the aspects away from the field that have Taggart most pleased.
Matthews’ on-field abilities have never been up for debate.
Despite his slender frame (5-10, 156 pounds), Matthews garnered prep All-America status out of Jacksonville football power Trinity Christian, racking up 1,500 total yards as a senior and earning a four-star rating from all the major scouting services.
And Matthews has showed flashes of those abilities in his time at Florida State – first as the team’s first-choice punt returner in 2017, and then as an emerging star at receiver a year later.
But along with those flashes also came some frustrations.
Frustrations at his team’s tribulations in 2017, which led to the departure of coach Jimbo Fisher and his staff. And then frustrations again in 2018, when the Seminoles struggled to find their footing in their first year under Taggart.
With so much in flux, and the Seminoles seemingly stuck in neutral, Matthews found it hard to dive in with his teammates and his new coaches.
“I was still young,” Matthews said. “I was caught up in a lot of emotion and stuff I couldn’t handle. …
“I believe I was like one foot in, one foot out.”
Then two things happened that seem to have altered the course of Matthews’ career. And maybe the course of FSU’s offense.
First, Matthews turned another year older. He’ll be a junior in the fall and, with half of his eligibility exhausted, Matthews was forced to take inventory of what he’s accomplished so far and what he hopes to achieve during the remainder of his time in Tallahassee.
Second, Taggart met with Matthews and told him that Florida State football won’t get back to its high standards without the players first holding themselves to their own high standards.
And that includes talented, veteran receivers.
“Coach ‘Tagg,’ he wanted me to come in with a certain standard, and that’s the standard that I’ve been chasing,” Matthews said. “And just getting back to the culture, getting back to Florida State football – I want it to get back there, so I’ve been working super hard. …
“Once (Taggart) stepped in and told me just play football, don’t worry about the things I can’t control, it just helped me out.”
Matthews’ new outlook manifested itself in a number of ways – by arriving early to meetings and staying late after practices. And by pulling double-duty in the film room while also handling his business in the classroom.
Turns out that taking a professional, mature attitude to everything off the field made it easier to be successful on the field.
“I didn’t get that from D.J. last year,” Taggart said. “But he made that commitment to himself, that he was going to do it. And by doing it, he’s seeing what D.J. can be for this football team.”
A close friendship with his starting quarterback helped, too.
Matthews and quarterback James Blackman arrived together in Florida State’s signing class of 2017 and have been roommates ever since.
Which means that the living room can double as a film-study room, and everything – right down to video games – can be used as an excuse to compete.
“That’s my brother from another mother,” Blackman said about Matthews. “I love him. A hard-working kid. He keeps me motivated, keeps the team motivated.”
Blackman, maybe more than anyone else, has seen the strides that his friend and roommate has made over the last few months.
Most of the time, it brings a smile to his face.
Other times – like when Matthews wakes Blackman up in the middle of the night to give a playful reminder that Blackman missed him on a wide-open route in practice – he can’t help but roll his eyes and laugh.
“He’s a lot more hungry,” Blackman said. “He’s being that leader that everyone knows he can be. He’s helping everyone. He’s taking control of that receiver room.”
Blackman isn’t the only one who has noticed a change.
“Whatever you can think of, he’s been on it,” junior running back Cam Akers said. “From Day 1 of spring. Today, you saw the work he’s been putting in. D.J. Matthews is going to be an integral part to this offense.”
In more ways than one.
Yes, if all goes according to plan, Matthews will be making catches and fielding punts and making defenders miss throughout the fall.
But he also plans to be an anchor for a receivers room in something of a transition.
FSU has a new receivers coach and will have a new starting quarterback, and the Seminoles’ top pass-catcher from a year ago, Nyqwan Murray, is no longer in the fold.
Matthews and Terry will of course be counted on to produce, but FSU will likely need contributions from a deep stable of redshirt freshman and sophomore receivers as well – Warren Thompson, Keshawn Helton, D’Marcus Adams, Jordan Young and Tre’Shaun Harrison.
In Matthews’ new world, the one where he brings the right mindset every day, mentoring FSU’s next wave of receivers might be as big of a job as what he does on the field.
“I’m one of the older guys now,” Matthews said. “We all need a leader in every position group, and my coaches were just pushing me to be that leader.
“They want me to be that vocal leader, who leads by example on the field, off the field, in the classroom. And that’s something I’m willing to take on.”