PITTSBURGH — Pitt freshman wide receiver Aaron Mathews has just four catches for 16 yards on the season. But that doesn’t mean the young man from Clairton, Pa., hasn’t been an important contributor.
The 6-foot-4, 195-pound receiver has found other ways to contribute, and he’s come up with some big plays as a result.
Mathews has been the team’s most effective punt gunner and has developed into a weapon as a blocker at the receiver position. He played safety in high school, so the more physical roles aren’t anything new to him. It was just a matter of a want-to and an opportunity.
“At the beginning of the season, I didn’t want to be on special teams because in high school I didn’t want to be on special teams, but as I found how important it was, I started to enjoy it, and then I realized how capable of being good at it I am,” Mathews said Tuesday after practice.
It started with an open tryout held at practice a few weeks into the season after the Panthers had identified the gunner position as a spot needing some attention. Special teams coach Andre Powell encouraged Mathews to try out and he ended up winning the competition. That’s when he found out that he could be a good at it, and that it could be a lot of fun.
“He’s a tough guy,” head coach Pat Narduzzi said Monday. “When we recruited him we thought he was tough enough to play defense, so he’s obviously tough enough to go block and he’s tough enough to go run down as gunner and make two solo tackles against two pretty good athletes in space.”
Powell has been impressed with the way that Mathews has not only bought in, but picked up the concepts of special teams quickly. Now that he’s mastered the gunner position, Powell is working him in some other spots on special teams, as well.
“He’s a freshman,” he said. “Those guys very rarely play special teams in high school. They don’t get it. They understand the importance of it and how it impacts the game. Slowly and surely, he understands that he’s a big guy, he’s physical and he’s done a really good job.”
But Mathews’ biggest contribution to date might have been the excellent blocking he provided on James Conner’s fourth-quarter touchdown run against Clemson.
Remember that the play was called to the opposite side of the field. Mathews had no idea that Conner cut it back, stiff-armed an unblocked defender and was running down the field towards him. He just engaged his man and held onto the block until the whistle — a textbook effort from a wideout.
“That block, I took a lot more pride in that than any of my catches on the year,” Mathews said. “Blocking is just as important as receiving the ball. Whatever you can do to help your team win, that’s great, no matter what it is — catching, blocking, throwing the ball, whatever.”
Mathews has made it a point of emphasis to get better at blocking in his first season at Pitt. Surrounded by a receiving corps that Narduzzi dubbed the “Little Panthers,” Mathews’ size and physicality stand out.
“Me and [receivers coach Kevin Sherman] talk about it literally every day,” Mathews said. “At practice, I’ll still mess up here and there, but he’s on me. Me and James talk about it every day, too, in practice and in the games. I still want to work on it more. There’s nothing wrong with getting better at it.”