SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Fifth-year senior defensive end Andrew Hudson has one game left in his Washington Huskies football career. He won’t be here in 2015, but he’ll be watching.
And when asked on Monday afternoon which of his defensive line teammates he’s most excited to see next season, Hudson didn’t hesitate.
“Joe Mathis, of course,” Hudson said following UW’s practice here at Chaparral High School in preparation for Friday night’s Cactus Bowl game against Oklahoma State.
Hudson likely isn’t alone in his anticipation. Mathis – nicknamed “JoJo” – came to UW as a four-star defensive end prospect out of Upland, California, and figured to eventually be a significant part of life without Hudson, Evan Hudson, Danny Shelton and Hau’oli Kikaha, the Huskies’ starting front four, all of whom are seniors.
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Then Steve Sarkisian and the entire defensive coaching staff left UW for USC following Mathis’ freshman season, and he didn’t quite know how to work with new coach Chris Petersen and his assistants.
“It took a while, because I was coached a different way, and they reacted a different way, the old staff,” Mathis said. “So it was different for me because I’m used to something else. They’re all good guys. They just want the best for you, to be a good guy, blue-collar player. So that’s what you’ve got to be.
“I can say this now – I don’t think I was coachable. Now, I feel like I am. You just have to grow up.”
His coaches now say he has. And it’s shown on the field, as Mathis has totaled two sacks and 15 tackles in limited playing time behind UW’s entrenched starters.
Defensive line coach Jeff Choate expects more next season.
“The thing I’m most proud of with Joe is not how he’s progressed as a player, but how he’s progressed as a person – kind of taking a look at what he really wants out of this experience,” Choate said Monday. “Not just the football part of it. How he’s matured, taken responsibility for things he needs to be responsible for, learn from some things that didn’t quite go the way he wanted them to. It’s been awesome.”
Mathis missed two games earlier this season while taking what coach Chris Petersen called “personal time.” Mathis said on Monday that his mother was diagnosed with Lupus disease, a condition in which the body’s immune system attacks healthy tissues and cells, and that he wanted to go home to be with her and figure out what he wanted to do.
He returned to practice and eventually worked his way back into UW’s defensive line rotation. And he’s thankful for the chance to learn from a group of veteran linemen that includes a pair of All-Americans.
“I feel like I learn something every day, like a move or technique-wise, how to do things,” Mathis said. “Like Danny, I’m still trying to learn the arm lift he does, ‘cuz he’s just killin’ cats. I’m just like, ‘dang.’ I learn every day.
“It’s not just football wise, but life wise, because Danny, Hau’oli, they’re really my big brothers and they taught me a lot, life wise – making the right decisions.”
His improved attitude has Hudson – and Choate – excited to see what he can do with more playing time.
Hudson described some awkwardness the past two years, with both players battling at the same position and Hudson securing a starting spot this season after Mathis passed him on the depth chart as a freshman. But they remain friends, and Hudson sees him as a potential anchor of UW’s defensive front in 2015.
“I look forward to seeing him really dominate and do well in the Pac-12 next year,” said Hudson, who totaled 11.5 sacks this season, “because he could be a really great player.”
“We fully expect him to be on the field a lot more, and I think he’s going to be a really dynamic guy,” Choate said. “You can see it now. Like I said, right now I see him as kind of a splash player. He’ll go out there and he’s on the field for three or four downs, and he’s going to make a play within those three or four downs, whether it’s sprinting to the ball on a screen or turning it loose on a pass rush. I think he’s going to give us some of the pass rush we’re losing with guys like Andrew and Hau(oli), and also give us a high motor guy that’s going to bring great effort, not just in games, but in practice, too.”
Mathis said he wants to prove he can play every position on the defensive line, particularly the buck linebacker spot that requires both pass-rush and coverage capabilities. Along with players like Elijah Qualls, Taniela Tupou, Jarett Finau and Will Dissly, Mathis will likely be an integral part of reconstructing UW’s defensive line.
“I just can’t wait to go finish this game right, get this win,” Mathis said, “and start next season after the game.”
Christian Caple can be reached at email@example.com. Twitter: @ChristianCaple