Ever since Chris Matthews arrived from Los Angeles last summer, the Kentucky football coaches and players have been saying how dominant the junior-college transfer has been in practices and workouts.
But when it came to the games, we saw only bits and pieces of that dominance.
Finally, against a vaunted Florida defense down in The Swamp last Saturday, Matthews showed everybody what the coaches have been talking about.
The senior receiver burned the Gators for six receptions, 114 yards and two touchdowns and would have had more if a spectacular sideline catch on a pass from Randall Cobb had not been ruled out of bounds.
Florida chose to match up cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Jeremy Brown with Matthews and Cobb one-on-one, and on several occasions Matthews either ran by them or went over the top of them to make a catch.
"That's what he has the potential to do," receivers coach Tee Martin said. "We've been talking about potential, potential, potential. He finally came through on some of that stuff. I just want him to do it eight more times. He needs to be consistent like that.
"That's how he's practicing since the spring. We've been seeing it, you guys have been reporting it, and we've been saying it and saying it. You finally got to see it for yourself."
The Gators defensive backs played up tight on the UK receivers all night while the front seven keyed on Derrick Locke and the running game. As a result, Brown was able to intercept a short Mike Hartline pass intended for La'Rod King and take it 42 yards for a touchdown.
After that, the Cats started to attack downfield more, with Matthews using a double move to get open for a 27-yard TD catch in the third quarter.
"We need to utilize (Matthews), no matter who's at corner," Hartline said. "We've still got to give him a chance to make plays. He's too big and too strong of a guy not to give him a chance to go up there and make something happen."
Both Hartline and Matthews hope the Cats can start off on the attack Saturday at Mississippi.
"Hopefully we'll open it up and throw downfield a little more just to back teams off," Matthews said. "That'll give a chance for Locke and all our running backs to run the ball. They were pretty tough on the running game."
Ole Miss would seem to present the opportunity to keep the Hartline/Matthews harmony going. The Rebels haven't intercepted a pass all season while giving up eight touchdown passes and might be without starting strong safety Johnny Brown (knee bruise) and cornerback Jeremy McGee (concussion).
Ole Miss Coach Houston Nutt acknowledged that his secondary is having issues.
"We have a lot of improvements to make," he said. "We have to get into better position. It is hard in this league to go man-to-man, but we are going to ask them to do that a little bit. We have to do a better job of getting those guys in the right position, playing the ball in the air, going to attack and being physical. Hopefully, we can get some turnovers along the way."
McGee and Ole Miss's other starting corner, Marcus Temple, both stand 5-foot-10 while Matthews is 6-5.
With that kind of height advantage, UK Coach Joker Phillips said Hartline has the freedom to throw it up to Matthews even if he is covered.
"At 6-5 you've got a 5-10 guy on you, that's open," Phillips said. "I don't care how close he is to you. Chris has got to go up over him and take the ball, and he did do it a couple times (against Florida). And then the last one he ran past him with a double move. I think that's got to help his confidence, got to help Mike Hartline's confidence, being able to throw the ball up, and the 6-5 guy goes up and takes the throw."
Matthews' big performance at Florida probably improved his stock among NFL scouts. When you combine his size with his 4.5 speed, he was probably going to get some looks anyway. Now it's all about improving his position.
"I think he's a pro," Phillips said. "You've got to consider him a pro because he's 6-5 and athletic and has great hands, and he's a tough guy. I told him this last year: You're a pro, it's just a matter now of how good of a chance are you going to get. Are you going to be a free agent? At 6-5 and as well as he runs, he's at least a free agent. Now, do you play yourself into a seventh-rounder, a sixth-rounder, it's up to him. He's no longer a free agent, I can tell you that now. He's definitely a draft pick. How high depends on how well he continues to play."
Matthews said that while he's remaining focused on the 2010 season, the NFL does enter his thoughts every day. He'll have several more opportunities to play against potential draft picks as the Cats go through the meat of their conference schedule.
"That's the good thing about playing in the SEC; they say this is the mini-pro league," Matthews said. "The scouts are here every week, and I want to showcase my talent against the best of the best. If I'm going up against a cornerback or safety that's going first round, if I can showcase what I can do against them, it'll put me on the map even more than I am right now. My goals right now are to finish this year on a high note with 11 or 12 touchdowns, 50 or 60 receptions and 1,000 yards, or so. I want to give myself the best possible chance to get to the league."
UK Alumni tailgate tour
The UK Alumni Association will be holding a tailgate event this weekend for the UK-Ole Miss game in Oxford. The gathering will begin at 8:30 a.m. Central time at 1006 Van Buren Avenue. Cost is $5 for students, $10 for members and $15 for non-members. For reservations, register online at www.ukalumni.net/tailgate. For additional questions, contact Jill Smith at the UK Alumni Association at (859) 257-8906 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fans wishing to participate in the "Cat Walk," cheering the Wildcats when they enter the stadium Saturday, should be near Gate 24 of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium at 9 a.m. Central time. Gate 24 is in the south end zone.
Senior defensive tackle Ricky Lumpkin and senior wide receiver Chris Matthews have been named game captains for Saturday. Lumpkin and Matthews will join permanent captains Randall Cobb and DeQuin Evans at the pre-game coin toss.