ATHENS – Tray Matthews at Georgia was a comet. He arrived with flare and hype. He played right away and showed great promise, but also great frustration, on and off the field.
And then he was gone.
Matthews announced his own sudden departure from Georgia with a tweet, on June 3, 2014, minutes after he had been told he was dismissed from the program.
“I’m sorry UGA family.I swear to God I love yal. I’m crying right now but I won’t forget. Love the dawgs,” Matthews said, adding: “Auburn or Louisville will be my home.”
It would be the former. And this week Matthews returns to Sanford Stadium, the leading tackler and starting safety for Auburn, which is fighting for an SEC championship and is favored by nearly 10 points over Matthews’ former program.
“He just got the bad end of the stick, but he’s always been a good player,” said Georgia nose tackle John Atkins, who came in with Matthews in 2013. “He still is a good player.”
Matthews hasn’t been available this week for interviews, and only said after last Saturday’s game that the return to Georgia is “going to be fun.” He didn’t play in last year’s game against Georgia at Jordan-Hare Stadium, sitting out with an injury, but did greet former teammates and coaches on the field before and after the game.
Injuries plagued Matthews his entire time at Georgia, especially his hamstring. Coaches implored him to work on “training” the hamstring better, and then-head coach Mark Richt said one month before Matthews’ dismissal that he thought Matthews was maturing. That was also a couple months after Matthews was one of four Georgia players arrested on charges of double-cashing scholarship checks.
The accumulation of off-field problems finally led to his dismissal, the final straw apparently being when Matthews was accused of mouthing off to a teacher.
“We are trying to make room for guys who want to do things right,” Richt said in his unusually direct statement announcing the dismissal.
Matthews transferred to Auburn, a school he had considered out of high school, and sat out a season per transfer rules. Then he played in 10 games last year, racking up 46 tackles and two interceptions.
This year Matthews is in a more prominent role. He’s started all nine games, and has a team-high 57 tackles.
“Fast. Physical. Hard-nosed. He’s a football player,” said Georgia senior linebacker Ryne Rankin, another player who enrolled early with Matthews in 2013. “He’s out there balling and playing his butt off, so congrats to him. It’s going to be good seeing him.”
Georgia head coach Kirby Smart, who was Alabama’s defensive coordinator until this year, said he recruited Matthews out of high school, but not after his departure from Georgia.
“Tray’s a really good player,” Smart said. “He’s physical. He’s fast. You can see he plays with a lot of excitement out there.”
Matthews was the top-rate prospect in Georgia’s 2013 class, per the 247Sports Composite. He enrolled early, and was one of the team’s most impressive players that spring.
Matthews made six starts in 2013, playing in eight games, dealing with nagging injuries the rest of the time. When he did play he had his moments, making eight tackles at No. 8 Clemson, four tackles in the win over No. 5 LSU, an interception against North Texas.
Then there was the game against his future team, when he made a season-high 12 tackles – but also collided with Josh Harvey-Clemons on the play that became the Prayer at Jordan-Hare.
Harvey-Clemons would also end up being dismissed the following offseason, ending up at Louisville. Both were star-crossed players. Harvey-Clemons has never played against his former team. Matthews will get the chance Saturday.
“He’s found a home there that’s really good for him,” Atkins said. “I’m happy for him.”