ATHENS -- Tray Matthews might be on the verge of doing something that hasnt been done around the Georgia football program in awhile.
Since Todd Grantham became Georgias defensive coordinator in 2010, there hasnt been a true freshman who has started the opener.
But already Matthews, a safety who has been called fearless by teammates and drawn raves for his quiet tenacity, looks like he will crack Granthams lineup.
Im not a defensive coach or anything, receiver Malcolm Mitchell said. But, from what Ive seen, he will (start). So there goes your first one.
Matthews, a four-star recruit out of Newnan, has been the talk of spring practice so far. When head coach Mark Richt was asked after Tuesdays scrimmage if any early enrollees stood out, he answered Matthews, without hesitation. Matthews was credited with four tackles Tuesday, and two of them stuck out to Richt. They were open-field tackles where Matthews hauled down star tailback Keith Marshall. Richt called the tackles very outstanding.
Veteran teammates have been even more complementary.
Hes fearless receiver Chris Conley said. And hes got a great sense for where the ball is gonna be, even if you cant see it. Hell be going the right direction, even if theres a misdirection play. And I think his sixth sense, and just his football IQ is out of the roof for a freshman.
He hits everything even when were not supposed to be hitting, tight end Arthur Lynch said. Hes just a physical kid, and he doesnt talk much. He loves to compete. He kind of reminds me of Shawn Williams, but even more explosive. And Shawn was a pretty heavy hitter.
For (Tray), his ability as an 18-year-old to make plays against SEC veterans is pretty impressive.
All of this is nice, but immaterial, if one key person didnt share that opinion: Grantham.
Last year, a true freshman, Jordan Jenkins, became a starter, but only halfway through the season. Cornerback Damian Swann started one game as a first-year freshman in 2011. Throughout his tenure, Grantham has shown a tendency toward veteran players, even if theyre walk-ons, over less-experienced players.
So Grantham was asked last week if Matthews could conceivably be out there Aug. 31 against Clemson.
Sure. Sure. I see it, Grantham said. Dont you?
Granthams go-to line is that he ranks his players and tries to put the best 11 on the field, and if that meant putting someone at a different position, so be it. He pointed to last year, when Jarvis Jones moved to the Sam linebacker spot so then-freshman Jenkins could play at his most comfortable spot, the Will linebacker.
This spring, Matthews has been thrown right in the mix at free safety, working alongside rising junior Corey Moore and rising sophomore Josh Harvey-Clemons. A veteran former walk-on, Connor Norman, also appears to be in the mix.
But Matthews has been working mostly first team, according to several players.
Were throwing a lot at him, by purpose, because I wanna see what guys can handle, Grantham said. I have no trouble playing young players. Every day we grade guys on effort, and loafing, hustle plays, tackles, production, all the positive things that we grade on. And all the negative things. And if a guy is a freshman and he makes the most plays, then hes gonna play.
Early enrollees have been off limits to the media since spring practice began. But last month Matthews made it clear that it would be a disappointment to him if he didnt get a chance to start.
Because I feel like I worked too hard not to start, he said. But my Dad used to always tell me the cream of the crop always rises to the top. He says as long as the coaches give me a fair shot at any position, Im gonna come out with a good outcome.