It’s tough to play cornerback in Pat Narduzzi’s Pitt defense, but the pressure and responsibility that comes with playing on an island is what drew Damarri Mathis to Pitt as a three-star defensive back out of Florida.
“It’s just like up to us personally,” Mathis said at Lucas Oil Stadium Saturday. “We play like a man-matched corner, so we always see the receivers’ face, we’re always physical. That’s really like the big reason I went to Pitt, how we play our defense, and I feel like it prepares you for the next level.”
With Damar Hamlin, Dane Jackson, Jason Pinnock, K’Waun Williams, Avonte Maddox, Jordan Whitehead, all playing in the NFL right now as capable defensive backs, Pitt has served as a pipeline for starting-caliber guys. Mathis, a 5-foot-11, 195-pound cornerback, is the next in the line of Pitt stars.
“I just feel like playing with those guys, we had a really special group, really special bond and chemistry,” Mathis said. “I feel like it’s good that a lot of us had success out of that program’s system. Like, we could play in the league, we’re showing that.”
With cornerbacks tasked to play on literal islands, with no safety help over the top, it’s often a quick adjustment. If you’re beaten by the opposing wide receiver, it’s a touchdown. It’s tough at the college level, but it does prepare Pitt’s corners for the rigors of NFL football.
Mathis played as Pitt’s top cornerback in 2021, racking up 43 tackles (32 solo), two interceptions, including a pick six, and five passes defended. And coming off a 2020 season missed to injury, it was a leading effort in a bounce-back campaign.
“I felt like I played good this year,” Mathis said. “Going into the offseason, I felt like I worked really hard on my craft and conditioning.”
Don’t sleep on @Marri863‼️
Damarri Mathis is the latest Pitt DB to open eyes at the #NFLCombine 👀
4.40 ⏱ in the 40-yard dash 🔥
— Pitt Football (@Pitt_FB) March 6, 2022
The offseason work, working on both on-field skills and body conditioning, paid off with the first championship Mathis has ever won. A win over Wake Forest in the ACC championship was the result of a lot of hard work from Mathis but the entire squad.
“I never won a championship, that was my first championship ever,” Mathis said. “It just felt good, it was kinda like a surreal moment, just going there and winning. Going into that ACC championship, I really felt like we had the team, the chemistry needed to win that.”
The ACC championship was Mathis’s send-off, as he opted out of the Peach Bowl, and he’s been preparing for the NFL Draft since. His NFL Combine experience has been new, but he’s had help too.
“I’m just enjoying the process and going through it day-by-day,” Mathis said. “I don’t really know what to expect because it’s my first time doing it, but everything’s been going good so far.”
Jackson, who spent three seasons with Mathis at Pitt between 2017-19, helped him through the Senior Bowl process. So, when the Combine rolled around, Mathis turned to him for advice again.
And while Jackson is helped Mathis through the process, Mathis pointed to a couple of Pitt defensive backs who will be stepping up without him in 2022 and could eventually follow in his own footsteps.
Marquis Williams, Mathis’s cornerback partner in 2021, and Brandon Hill, part of Pitt’s starting safety duo in 2021.
“(Williams is) just a technician,” Mathis said. “He’s got good footwork. We play two different techniques … I feel like he can be really good in the nickel. And then, as far as Brandon Hill, he’s just all over the place.”
Mathis will have the opportunity to be back around his old defensive secondary running mates this month as he returns to Pittsburgh to continue training and preparing for Pitt’s Pro Day on March 21.