Marshall’s Nick Matthews in battle to start at slot

Courtesy photo | Marshall University
Wide receiver Nick Mathews, seen here during a 2016 game, has emerged as the leading candidate to start in the slot.

HUNTINGTON — Nick Mathews could well fall behind Marcel Williams at Marshall’s slot receiver position, but he won’t fall without a battle.

You could say “fall” isn’t quite the right word when it comes to the junior’s effort. Considering his start with the Thundering Herd as a scrawny walk-on, his career is progressing nicely.

Mathews has run with the first unit this month, though he split snaps with Williams in Thursday’s workout. Williams is working at both inside and outside receiver, and he stands to give the receiving corps some interchangeability.

The 5-foot-10, 175-pound Mathews was placed on scholarship in May, but he said there is not a special feeling of no longer being a walk-on.

“No, there’s been no difference, honestly. The only big difference was I was able to tell my parents I got put on [in the spring],” he said. “But besides that, after seeing all their emotions and having thought about it, it’s literally the same thing. I’m just playing and doing what I love to do and, hopefully, things work out.”

His position coach, Dallas Baker, wants it to be that way.

“One thing I thing I’m telling Nick, now that he’s on scholarship, he has to keep that walk-on mentality, that he has something to prove every day he comes out here,” Baker said. “That’s how he has to go to work — somebody is coming to take his spot and someone is always in front of him. Never be satisfied ever, no matter what.

“And that’s what I believe got Nick to the point he’s at now, so he has to keep that edge.”

Mathews should build substantially on his five career catches for 47 yards. He has stayed ahead of Gator Green and Simino Walden in the Herd’s slot order, but Williams may be gaining on him. On Thursday, the junior-college transfer looked smooth on a 30-yard pass from Chase Litton.

“Since he stepped on campus, he’s been very talented,” Mathews said of Williams. “Since he’s learned the playbook, he’s caught on very fast. He’s learned the outside and inside very quickly, and that’s going to help him tremendously.”

But Mathews has made a few big plays of his own in camp, and Baker rolls out the “smart” adjective to describe him.

“Sometime I may give Nick my eyes — I can’t play anymore,” Baker said. “There’s something I may see that he doesn’t, that comes from experience, and he comes out and picks it up in one time.

“It’s always fun to work with a guy like that.”

Mathews likes working for Baker, the former Florida and Pittsburgh Steelers receiver who took over in the spring. He says Baker has taught him new releases and variations that make “cookie-cutter routes” more effective — pretty much the job description of a slot receiver.

The legacy of slot receiver Tommy Shuler, the Herd’s all-time receptions leader, still lives in Shewey Athletic Building.

“Since I came in, I’ve studied his film,” Mathews said. “We run the same offense, same plays, and he was the master of getting open. Wasn’t the biggest, fastest — [that’s how] I portray myself — he was just able to get open.

“He knew the coverages and was able to study the defenses very well, so that’s what I work to do.”

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Baker and Williams have a longtime connection, though it doesn’t make Williams’ life easier on the practice field.

“Marcel’s in my top three of guys I’m hardest on,” Baker said. “We’re actually related — my cousin actually raised him, so I’ve known Marcel since he was a kid. I know sometimes I can be annoying, but he does a great job of doing whatever I ask you to do, and he goes to work.

“It’s always fun to coach someone I guess you can call family.”

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Marshall continues its final week of public practice with 3:20 p.m. workouts Thursday and Friday. The week concludes with a scrimmage at 6 p.m. Saturday.

Contact Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or dougsmock@wvgazettemail.com. Follow him on Twitter @dougsmock and read his blog at http://blogs.wvgazettemail.com/dougsmock/.

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