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Oct. 7, 2009

By Bryan Powell
Media Relations Student Assistant

NBA great Larry Bird once said, “I’ve got a theory that if you give 100 percent all of the time, somehow things will work out in the end.” Junior defensive end Cliff Matthews is the embodiment of hard work and effort.

Having played in all 29 games over the past two seasons making 26 consecutive starts, Matthews has become an integral part of a Carolina defense that currently ranks fourth in the SEC in total defense. Rarely will head coach Steve Spurrier make it through a press conference without mentioning the hustle and effort of Cliff Matthews. Matthews has twice been awarded for his hustling ways earning the Weight Room Effort Award over the summer and the Everyday Effort Award in the spring of 2008.

“I guess it’s sort of been molded in my head growing up,” said Matthews. “If you’re going to play football, why not play it full speed? That’s what I’ve been told most of my life, and not just with football. I try to go full speed with everything.” The full speed effort has brought success to Matthews at the collegiate level, but success is nothing new for the 6-4″, 249-pound junior.

The Cheraw native came to South Carolina as a highly touted recruit. Ranked as high as a five-star recruit by some recruiting services, Matthews played both ways in high school. His efforts helped lead his team to a state championship earning first-team all-state honors. His success was not limited to football, also receiving all-state for his efforts in basketball and track & field. Considered by some to be the top rated player in the state of South Carolina, Matthews chose USC over Clemson, Florida State, Georgia, Tennessee, Florida, and Auburn.

Of the recruiting process, Matthews said, “Through the process of getting experience, going to football games, I learned to love it here as a young recruit.” One of the perks of being so close to home is having his family close by.

“A lot of my family gets to come see me play. It’s really similar to playing ball growing up. My family is here to support me, along with 80,000 fans. There’s nothing like it.”

Matthews wasted little time in making in impact for the Gamecocks. He began his career at South Carolina as an outside linebacker. In his freshman campaign, Matthews played in all 12 games, logging nine starts. He recorded a season-high four tackles against South Carolina State and matched that total against North Carolina.

He received credit for a partially blocked punt against LSU, the first for the Gamecocks since 2000. Observers from around the country began to notice the talented freshman. Matthews was named to the SEC Coaches and the Sporting News Freshman All-SEC team. He was also named to the honorable mention Freshman All-America team by the Sporting News.

Last season brought a little bit of change to Matthews. He moved to defensive end permanently after spending most of his freshman season at outside linebacker. He started all 13 games. The position swap did not change Matthews’ outlook on how he played. He credits this outlook with how hard he practices.

“Our practice is really intense,” said Matthews. “To be honest, I think our practice is extremely harder than the games. We’re prepared for anything. We strive for perfection on the practice field, because we know that will translate to the games.”

That brings us to this season. Coming into the year, Matthews had recorded three sacks and seven and a half tackles for loss. This season alone, Matthews has been a major hindrance to opposing offenses logging four sacks and five tackles for loss through four games, good enough for second and third in the SEC respectively. To Matthews, there is nothing better than getting to the quarterback.

“There’s only one thing on my mind, attack, attack, attack,” commented Matthews. “You just have to find a way to get to him (the quarterback). You just have to be active. You have to move your hands, move your feet, get off of blocks, even if the ball is on the other side of the field, you just have to be active. You have to set your mind to it. There’s no better feeling than being at home at Williams-Brice and getting a sack, especially on third and long.”

Senior team captain Eric Norwood has seen the effort paying off for Matthews.

“He’s tenacious,” said Norwood. “He brings fearlessness to the defense. That’s him. This year’s he’s having a great start. He’s capitalizing on a lot more plays this year that he was so close to making last season. He’s always flying around the field.”

With so many faces around the Carolina football program, many are calling it a “New Carolina”. Matthews described this by saying, “This season, everybody’s on the same page. Everybody’s focused. Everybody’s humble, hungry. We’re just staying hungry.” An evidence of new things transpiring around the football program is last week’s thrilling upset of No. 4 ranked Ole Miss. Matthews said that it was a feeling unlike any other he had experienced before.

“It was an incredible feeling,” said Matthews. “That’s one of the biggest wins of my life. I’m looking forward to having many more experiences like that one.” Though the Gamecocks remained unranked after the upset, Matthews says it’s okay with him.

“It motivates us more,” reflected Matthews. “I know that if we keep on playing hard, with the attitude we’ve got, we’ll eventually be ranked. It matters more where we are at the end of the season.”

Matthews has found a second home in Columbia among the Gamecock faithful. He describes his favorite part about being a Gamecock as the support he receives from the fans.

“I’ve been to a lot of places, but there is no other place like this (Williams-Brice Stadium) in the world,” said Matthews. “2001 is just incredible. As soon as you come out of that tunnel, there are 80, 000 people out there, but it sounds like 100,000 plus. It’s incredible.”

Aside from winning ball games, Matthews has set a few personal goals for this season. “I plan on making All-SEC. I just want to make plays. I just want to make as many plays as I can.”

Given what has transpired over a lifetime of effort, there is plenty of reason to believe that his goals can be achieved.