Tony Mathis spent the last two seasons learning everything he could from Leddie Brown. Playing behind a back-to-back 1,000-yard rusher meant his reps were limited, but his determination was anything but.
He spent that time absorbing all the knowledge he could from Brown. He remained committed to the program and the process. He viewed it as an opportunity to take advantage of, not a deterrent.
“The bond you created with coaches doesn’t just change overnight. I decided to stay and work and do what I needed to do. I’m just that type of guy,” Mathis said.
For the rising redshirt junior running back, taking his talents elsewhere was never an option. Position coach Chad Scott said Mathis’s willingness to stay and work on his craft shows he is a true competitor.
“I think competitiveness is almost a lost art these days. Here’s a kid who has gone through a lot. A talented kid,” Scott said. “I’ve always been honest with him. Always transparent on where he is — the good and the bad. For him to be able to take that and want to get better, want to learn, strengthen his strengths and weaknesses. For him to stick it out and understand we’ve always been there for him and he had to work to get to a point where he can make some plays, it’s been great.”
Last season did come with its frustrations due to injuries, but it only fueled his hunger. He knew if he wanted to be in Brown’s position one day, he had to work for it. That work paid off towards the end of the season.
Both Brown and Mathis eclipsed 100 yards in the regular-season finale. Mathis reached a career-high 118 yards on 22 carries in Lawrence.
The next time he took the field, he was a starter as Brown opted out of the bowl game to focus on the NFL draft.
This upcoming season, it’s likely that role will now belong to No. 24 as he is the veteran in the backfield. His role may have changed this spring but his mentality hasn’t
“I’m still head down, grinding. I’m trying to be more vocal for the other running backs, but everything else is the same. Still the same script,” Mathis said.
When it comes to needed improvements ahead of the 2022 season, Mathis said he has to work on everything. He always strives to get better in every area he can, that’s why he turned to his position coach in the offseason and asked him for an honest answer to that question.
Scott said it’s rare that a player is the one seeking that advice first, but it’s that mindset that has helped Mathis develop into the player he is.
“He knows the offense really well, just thought he was pressing, forcing things, trying to make things happen. Doing that at the running back position can look real robotic sometimes,” Scott said.
“I remember this offseason I said ‘we went back and watched a lot of your runs from last year. You had a lot of 1-on-1 situations where if you just be the football player you were in high school where you weren’t thinking, you were just rocking that Cedartown uniform, you would win a lot of those and go score’. So he said ‘I just need to be a football player?’ and I said yeah. He said ‘I got you’.”
That’s exactly what Scott has seen through eight practices. He’s been consistent in his assignments and the game is starting to slow down due to repetition. It’s been clear the confidence and momentum from the end of last season have carried over.
“He seems to be out there free-flowing, improvising, just being a football player,” Scott said. “He cut some runs back that weren’t really supposed to cut back but it’s hard to say anything when he’s making a play with it so it’s really refreshing to see. Coach (Brown) asked me ‘what do you think’ and I told him sometimes a player has to have the ability to create.”
And the WVU defense has taken notice of Mathis’s ability to do just that.
“He’s been able to turn some plays that would typically be some TFLs into some big plays, a couple of touchdowns, to the point where Tajih Alston said ‘Tony Mathis, boy, he keeps us on our toes, man. They are telling us to shimmy down and I see what they are talking about. I have to shimmy on him, boy, because he made me look silly last week’.”
The Orlando, Florida native said he learned how to be a college running back playing behind Brown. He looks to showcase it come this fall.