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‘Boy did we sure miss D.J. last year’ — IU football welcomes back playmaker Matthews

D.J. Matthews is one of the smallest players on Indiana’s roster, but no one left a bigger void than the Florida State transfer when he suffered a season-ending knee injury at Western Kentucky in week four last season.

Indiana brought in Matthews to fill the opening left by Whop Philyor as the next playmaker in the open field, and the 5-foot-11 and 160-pound Jacksonville, Fla. product was highly productive in a number of ways.

Matthews caught 13 passes for 165 yards, returned four punts for 83 yards with a career-long, 81-yard touchdown against Idaho, and he rushed twice for 28 yards with a score.

Indiana’s offense was never a juggernaut in 2021, but in the first four weeks with the shifty Matthews on the field IU scored 119 points.  They would only produce 88 points over the final eight contests without him.

When Matthews went down in a heap on the turf at Western Kentucky as he recovered a muffed punt, in many ways the IU offense crumbled right along with him.

That realization once again hit IU coach Tom Allen and his assistants this week as the Hoosiers opened fall camp in Bloomington.

“After the first practice, the general consensus of the staff was ‘wow, boy did we sure miss D.J. last year,'” Allen said on Friday via Zoom.  “It really, really hurt us last year losing him.  He didn’t get to play very many games, so you kind of forget really how good he was.”

Matthews came to IU with a established track record of making splash plays.  He ranks 10th at FSU with 582 career punt return yards and 56 returns, and he holds two of the top-four single-game marks. In 35 games (16 starts) with the Seminoles, Matthews made 84 receptions for 809 yards and five touchdowns to go along with one punt return touchdown.

Now more than 10 months removed from a torn ACL, Matthews is competing at fall camp after missing spring practice.  He’s expected to be ready to play when week one rolls around on Sept. 2 against Illinois.

Allen is looking forward to getting the dynamic threat back on the field.

“He is a special player,” Allen said. “He’s got really, really special ball skills, he knows how to get open, got a lot of moxie and savvy and toughness to him, so just a really good football player.”

Never was Matthews’ value to Indiana more apparent than against eventual CFP participant Cincinnati last year in week three, when he caught five passes for 120 yards against the Bearcats’ vaunted pass defense, and he added a 14-yard scoring run on a reverse that gave IU a second half lead.

But a week later Matthews’ season came to an end, and Indiana’s offense was never the same.

Allen’s appreciation for what Matthews brings to the team extends beyond the field. The 24-year-old has also become one of the program’s more important leaders outside of the lines.

With veteran receivers Ty Fryfogle and Miles Marshall gone, Matthews has stepped-up and become a strong voice in a room full of otherwise either inexperienced or unfamiliar faces.

“He’s a talented player who has really bought in and become a leader in that room, and that excites me,” Allen said.  “He’s so locked in.  He and I have met a lot one-on-one this past year, and there’s a real strong connection there.  I have a lot of mutual love and respect for him and the man that he’s become.”

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