R.J. Mattes was a redshirt freshman who impressed coaches and fans alike with his outstanding play on the offensive line last season. Although Mattes came to the Pack from Concord (NC) Robinson High ranked as the No. 21 offensive tackle in the country by Rivals.com, he found himself playing guard last season.
However, his season was cut short when he tore his ACL on the fifth play of the game against Florida State. Prior to that, the redshirt freshman earned the starting nod in all eight contests at right guard and was the youngest player to start on the offensive line since 2003 (a mark that has since been reset by freshman Robert Crisp). Mattes can go into excruciating detail of the play that resulted in his injury, remembering it like it occurred just days before.
"It was a draw play actually and, on draws, we show pass [protection], then twist to throw our guy outside," Mattes remembered. "While I was twisting, Toney Baker got tackled into the back of my knee. Him and a 300-pound defensive tackle just came on my knee and it gave out, with a knee brace on and everything. It was just a bad angle and it gave out. I wish it never happened, but it happened.
"It was the worst pain I had ever felt in my life, I knew I was done as soon as it happened."
It has been a long road back for Mattes, but last Thursday night against Cincinnati on national television, he made his return at right tackle. The 6-foot-6, 303-pounder had spent six days a week with the team's athletic trainers for the past nine months while his teammates were practicing and improving on the football field. The thing Mattes missed most, however, was simply the physical aspect of the game.
"Going through spring ball and watching people play and hit each other; going through camp sitting on the sideline was the worst feeling in life," he said. "I never want to go through that again.
"I'm just glad to be out there and hitting people again."
Mattes has been back on the practice field for less than two weeks, but is feeling no ill affects after playing 39 snaps on Thursday. He says his knee feels normal again, which is a change, but that he is still far from where he was at when the injury occurred. He expects to return to form quickly, though.
"I've only had a week and a half of practice, so I'm still getting into things," Mattes said. "I'm a little rusty, but I felt better coming out here today. I'm getting better daily, I still have to make a few strides to get back to where I was but I'm still coming back strong.
"I've been running with the strength and conditioning staff and Coach Rice has got me in shape, but there's a difference between being in shape and being in football shape. It's going from just running to running and hitting people, you just need [time] to get back into football shape. I feel like it may be a week or so more then I'll be right back there."
Mattes noted that the knee rehab he had to go through was tougher than he ever would have imagined, but the trainers pushed him to get him to where he is at now.
"It was a grind, I had to stay with it everyday," he said. "Some days, I didn't want to come in, but the athletic training staff pushed me, I'm happy with what they did for me. Some of the stuff like forcing my knee to bend to get my range of motion back was not a joke, but I got through it and I'm glad that I did."
While talking about the injury is just another stop on the road to recovery, Mattes would obviously much rather look forward and talk about this season. Although he admits the pressure is greater at tackle, where, "you're on an island, you can't get beat or your quarterback will get killed," it's easy to tell Mattes welcomes the challenge with open arms. The excitement in his voice clearly picks up when questions go from his injury rehab to playing tackle in 2010.
"I played left tackle in high school and they played me at tackle as a freshman [when Mattes redshirted], but last year, they wanted me at guard so they had the best five on the field," he said. "I played where they wanted me to play. Now, they put me back at tackle, that's my position, that's where it feels natural for me and I'm glad to be back out there."
Another factor that has put Mattes in the express lane to recovery has been the help of his father, Ron, who is now an assistant at Virginia. The elder Mattes played under coach Tom O'Brien in the early 1980s at Virginia and went on to play in the NFL. He coached in college until his son reached middle school, when he gave it up to help tutor his son's middle and high school teams.
The father has continued to help his son from afar, providing tips when he gets a rare opportunity to see R.J. in action. With Thursday's game on ESPN, the elder Mattes talked to his son the next day and provided a quick lesson over the phone. The son embraces the opportunity to have the eyes of two offensive line coaches critiquing his first chance back on the field.
"I'm real happy for him to be back coaching, that's what he loves to do," the younger Mattes said. "I'm glad he got back into the business, we don't play them this year, but next year we play them. I'm looking forward to that game for sure.
"He's helping me out, along with [NC State offensive line] Coach Horton. It's a good thing for me because I'm having two coaches coach me up."
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