PITTSBURGH — Aaron Mathews is a freakish athlete.
The sophomore Pitt receiver is listed at 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds, and it’s easy to see why he was originally recruited as a safety coming out of Clairton High School. He’s tall, with long arms and a chiseled physique.
He’s not just big, either. Mathews is tough and physical. He excelled as a blocker from the wide receiver position in 2016 and also earned his way into a special teams role on kick coverage units.
But Mathews is also a receiver. That position is usually associated with different types of athletic prowess. Quickness and precision are valued more than brute strength and power. This spring, Mathews focused on become a more-rounded receiver. Instead of a blocking specialist that used his size as his biggest asset, Mathews wants to become known as a route runner and a technician on the inside as well as the outside. He feels that he can make tough catches in traffic and use his frame to fight for extra yards as well as catch deep balls over the top with his speed and height.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Mathews has dedicated himself to his craft as a receiver. After all, it was the biggest factor in him deciding to come to Pitt in the first place. Mathews, who played quarterback and linebacker at Clairton, was initially recruited by most programs — including the Panthers — as a defensive player. Mathews originally committed to Penn State to play safety, but Pitt ended up with a late opening at receiver and that was enough to lure Mathews to play closer to his hometown.
In his first full year at the position, Mathews showed plenty of glimpses of promise. But he finished the season with just six catches for 51 yards. That’s something that he’s determined to improve upon in his second season.
“I feel like I’m still a little bit behind,” he said. “There’s always room for improvement. The sky’s the limit. I just have to keep working. I feel like as of right now, I’m not where I want to be.”
That should be a scary thought for opposing defenses. If the already physically imposing Mathews could become a top-flight route runner and pass catcher, the sky really is the limit. He’s certainly made an impression to those that have surrounded him all spring at Pitt’s practices.
“He’s starting to learn the game more,” said senior cornerback Avonte Maddox, who faced Mathews regularly in practice this spring. “It’s one thing to be big and strong, but once the knowledge comes into play, you can become a really great player. I feel like he’s learning the game a lot more. He was already big and strong and he’s got good hands. All he has to do is get in the film room and keep learning the game more and he can be a dominant receiver, to be honest.”
“When I first got here, his mold was kind of the high school quarterback who is making his way to receiver and he’s been doing a great job,” added redshirt senior quarterback Max Browne. “You can see he’s big, tall, athletic and can run a little bit. I’ve hooked up with him on a bunch of deep balls, which is great to see the explosive plays using his size. He’s just an athlete. … I think utilizing what he has to offer will be a mismatch.”
So the consensus is that Mathews is a matchup problem that could develop into a dominant receiver. Why then did some people — including Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi for a time — wanted to play him at defense?
Part of the reasoning for that is his lack of experience. Between his role as an option-style quarterback and his defensive responsibilities Mathews never really got to show what he could do as a receiver in his high school career.
“I think he can be a heck of a defensive player,” said Narduzzi, who has probably never met a player he didn’t think he could find a place for on defense.
But even Pitt’s defensively-oriented head honcho saw something in Mathews that lead him to the offensive side of the ball.
“He likes to play wide out,” Narduzzi said. “It’s ups and downs. It’s a grind. But Aaron has done some nice things.”
Clairton head coach Wayne Wade, who was Mathews’ last head coach, had a similar conundrum. Offense or defense was not the issue, as most Clairton players play both ways. But the issue was if he should use Mathews at wide receiver — where he preferred to play and hoped to continue his career— or where the team needed him the most.
“We saw in here that he would be a receiver at the next level, even though there were some schools that thought Aaron could possibly play [defense] at the next level,” Wade said. “If it was my wish, Aaron would have played receiver all three years of high school. It was just that we needed him at quarterback.”
Wade went on to explain the importance of Mathews’ role at Clairton. He wasn’t just any quarterback. He took the reigns of the team that lost Tyler Boyd and was coming off a state title and a state-record unbeaten streak and won two more WPIAL titles, keeping Clairton’s status intact as a school that doesn’t just produces college and pro athletes, but one that wins championships.
“I think it’s a testament to our program the he jumped on board when it was his turn. He saw the guys that were in front of him. … Aaron was always a bigger kid, a faster kid, a more athletic kid. So with all of his hard work and everything, we knew Aaron was going to be a Division I player.
The lack of experience that made him an under-the-radar prospect at the position also provides hope that Mathews can grasp his full potential with more tutelage at the spot. You can count Wade amongst those that believe it will happen.
“Without a doubt,” he said. “I was down on the field at the spring game. He’s working with the starting guys. I truly believe that in a year or two, Aaron is going to be one of those big-name receivers from Pitt. You’ll hear about Aaron Mathews like you hear about all of the great receivers that have come through Pitt.”