We’re at No. 20 and counting today in our ranking of the SEC’s 25 best players. This next guy is one of the top defensive linemen in the league.
No. 20: Cliff Matthews, DE, Sr., South Carolina
2009 numbers: Recorded 47 total tackles, including 10 tackles for loss. Tied for fourth in the SEC with seven sacks, while leading the league with four fumble recoveries and tying for second with three forced fumbles.
Most recent ranking: Not ranked in preseason or postseason countdown for 2009.
Making the case for Matthews: One of the hardest working players in the league, the 6-4, 260-pound Matthews never gives up on a play. It’s a big reason South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier calls Matthews one of his favorite players that he’s ever coached. A second-team All-SEC selection last season by the coaches, Matthews has started in 33 games over his career and racked up 17.5 tackles for loss. He’s as good against the run as he is getting to the passer. Matthews, who started his career as an outside linebacker, has tremendous quickness off the ball, which makes him such an effective pass-rusher. But he also sheds blocks extremely well and doesn’t lose too many one-on-one battles. If you’re looking for big plays, Matthews is your guy. He had two sacks, a fumble recovery and a forced fumble in the upset win over Ole Miss last season. He preserved the win over Kentucky by batting down what would have been the game-tying two-point conversion late in that game. He also had a sack in the win over Clemson to end the regular season. Matthews might have been overshadowed some by Eric Norwood a year ago, but the South Carolina defensive coaches will tell you that Matthews was as valuable as anybody on their roster. He missed the spring while rehabilitating from shoulder surgery, an injury he battled through toward the end of last season. He should be healthy for the fall, though, and is poised to have his best season yet.