HOOVER, Ala. — Tray Matthews entered SEC Media Days for Auburn football with several huge titles in front of his name.
“Tray is our defensive leader,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said Thursday. “He’s probably our team leader.”
A few minutes later, a reporter asked Matthews about another name he wields — “CEO of the Auburn defense.” It’s the ideal term for an Auburn senior safety who led the team in tackles last season, when the defense put together its best campaign in several years.
“CEO of the defense, Coach [Kevin] Steele made that up,” Matthews said with a smile. “I just went along with it.”
Defensive leader, team leader, CEO — those are lofty positions for a player who was terminated from his first job on an SEC defense just a few years ago.
Three years before Matthews stepped into The Wynfrey Hotel in Hoover, Ala., as a team representative for Auburn, he was a safety at Georgia. After starting six games as a freshman for the Bulldogs, he was kicked off the team in June 2014 by former Georgia coach Mark Richt.
“At Georgia, you know, I was a freshman — 17, 18 years old, very immature,” Matthews said Thursday. “I just had to grow up. That right there grew me up quick.”
Matthews transferred to Auburn, where he sat out the 2014 season because of NCAA rules. During that time, Matthews said, the former standout recruit knew he had to make a change.
“My dad always told me, ‘If you fall down and something happens, you just can’t harp on it, you just can’t moan on it. You learn from it, and you move on,'” Matthews said. “That’s exactly what I’ve done. It made me a better person.”
In 2015, Matthews plugged into a starting safety job at Auburn. He made the most out of his second chance at SEC football by going above and beyond for his new teammates.
“He was a transfer that came over, and he had to earn everybody’s respect — teammates’ respect, coaches’ respect, my respect,” Malzahn said. “And he did that and then some.”
But it wasn’t until 2016 under Steele, the new defensive coordinator, and former defensive backs coach Wesley “Crime Dawg” McGriff, when the light fully clicked on for Matthews.
He couldn’t view himself as a safety on an island. He was a leader for the entire defense, flying toward the line of scrimmage in run support, sliding over for man coverage and dropping back deep as a center fielder for the whole unit.
“I’m learning what the linebackers are doing, the front is doing, where they’re sliding, where the protection is coming from,” Matthews said. “I’m looking at the big picture, not just my own position. That’s what’s helped me a lot. Coach Steele, he definitely makes us get into that playbook. He makes us learn multiple positions.
“Coach Crime Dawg was my coach last year. He told me, ‘Tray, you’re not only a safety. You’re a nickel, you’re a corner, you’re a linebacker. You play everything.’ He opened my eyes up. That led to my success.”
Now, in 2017, Auburn’s returning top tackler is leading the Tigers’ charge on and off the field.
Matthews says he wants to lead by example for the entire team. The night before he came up to Hoover for SEC Media Days, he posted pictures on social media of a late-night workout.
Matthews said he couldn’t stand the thought of taking a day off when his teammates who looked up to him were hard at work.
“I’m doing SEC Media Days right now, so I’m missing some workouts right now,” Matthews said. “I had to get it in last night. I just didn’t feel right, not getting the work in while everybody’s back in Auburn working out.”
To Matthews, that’s what being Steele’s CEO is all about. It’s the end result of a long journey that began with a dismissal of the self-described “immature” Matthews three summers ago.
“If I’m doing everything the right way and I’m working hard in the weight room and the classroom, I demand excellence from Deshaun Davis, Tre’ Williams, Jason Smith, Stephen Roberts,” Matthews said. “I demand excellence from every single one of them. I’m the CEO of my own company. I’m the CEO of my friends and my teammates.”