Auburn is all about giving players second chances, and Gus Malzahn took another chance this weekend when he agreed to bring on former Georgia defensive back Tray Matthews just weeks after Matthews had been dismissed by the Bulldogs.
The move drew criticism from rival fans who called Auburn names like “Thug University” or “college football’s rehab center,” but the Tigers have had success bringing in players with checkered pasts and who have needed a second chance.
Quarterback Nick Marshall is a perfect example. He, too, was dismissed from Georgia, in February 2012. After spending a year in junior college, he signed with Auburn and led to the Tigers to a 12-2 record, winning the SEC championship.
Going back to Malzahn’s days as offensive coordinator, Auburn took a chance on another quarterback named Cam Newton, and all he did was win a national championship.
Matthews might not have that type of impact when he’s eligible to play in 2015, but he has the talent to compete for a starting job right away. The former ESPN 300 prospect started six games as a freshman in Athens and finished with 36 tackles, one interception, one fumble forced and four passes broken up.
The question isn’t what he can do on the field. It’s whether can he stay out of trouble off it.
At Georgia, Matthews was one of four players arrested this spring and charged with multiple accounts of theft by deception. Basically, they received double payments for stipend checks that were issued by the Georgia athletic department.
But that wasn't the lone reason for his dismissal. According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, it was a classroom disruption earlier this month that ultimately led to the end. It was the last straw for head coach Mark Richt.
“We are trying to make room for guys who want to do things right,” Richt said in a statement following Matthews' dismissal.
Now it’s Auburn’s turn to deal with Matthews. Malzahn and his staff obviously they think they can make an impact on the troubled safety and help him to do right, but there’s still a high level of risk that goes into it, a risk that Tigers fans know all too well.
Auburn is just four years removed from a national championship, but between 2010 and 2013, the program fell apart. The rapid decline began with off-the-field incidents -- four players arrested on robbery charges and dismissed from the team and star running back Michael Dyer transferring after he was suspended for the bowl game -- and it escalated from there.
This program can’t afford to go down that same path, and taking on Matthews and keeping cornerback signee Kalvaraz Bessent, who was arrested in February, increases the chances of that happening.
With that said, the coaching staff now is very different from the coaching staff then. Malzahn has shown that if a player is out of line, he’s not afraid to kick him out of the program. Last August, he dismissed starting safety Demetruce McNeal and former ESPN 300 tight end Ricky Parks just weeks before the season opener.
Parks returned on probationary status after spending last fall at junior college, but once spring practice wrapped up, Malzahn announced that he was no longer with the program.
Matthews will likely be on that same short leash when he arrives at Auburn, and while the fans and coaches alike are hoping for a story similar to Marshall’s, there’s still a risk that it goes the other way. Is it worth it?