Mattison convinced Tebow can play

The last time Greg Mattison had to do a sales job on Tim Tebow things worked out reasonably well. That was December of 2005 while Mattison and Florida head coach Urban Meyer were sitting in a private jet in Pennsylvania waiting for takeoff. On that same night, Mike Shula and several Alabama assistants were in the Tebow family living room in Jacksonville, making their final recruiting pitch. The next afternoon Tebow would be going public with his decision where to play college football.

“I had convinced myself that if we lose him [Tebow], we’ll still be okay,” Meyer said back in 2008 before the Gators faced Alabama in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game. “Then Greg Mattison looked at me, and it’s about five degrees out. We’re sitting there and I’m freezing. He [Mattison] said, ‘You realize if we don’t get Tim, that will set the program back ten years.’ I said shut up. He said, ‘Ten years!’ I got so upset with him, I grabbed a blanket and didn’t talk to him the rest of the trip. He was right.”

The next day Tebow chose Florida and the rest is history — two Southeastern Conference championships, two national championships, the 2007 Heisman Trophy, three-time All-American, the most decorated player in the history of college football and considered by experts to be among the two or three best players ever to play the college game.

What Tebow did at Florida came as no surprise to Mattison, now the defensive coordinator of the NFL Baltimore Ravens.

“It’s what I expected,” Mattison said Tuesday evening from Mobile, Alabama, where he is with the Ravens’ coaches and scouts at the Senior Bowl where Tebow has generated an unprecedented stir. Not only is the game sold out, which is unusual, but there is a record number of head coaches, assistant coaches, general managers, player personnel directors, scouts and video crews.

Tebow isn’t the only player all those folks are scouting, but he is the single most intriguing player in Mobile. There is no question Tebow has the leadership qualities to inspire teammates to raise their level of play and scouts don’t question that he might be the best quarterback in college football history. The questions have everything to do with Tebow’s funky throwing motion, low release point and lack of time under center.

Since he arrived in Mobile, Mattison has been sought out by representatives of nearly every NFL team and he hears the exact same pitch from every one of them — You’re the guy who recruited him to Florida; you’re the guy who knows him so well; and now you’re an NFL defensive coordinator … we love all his intangibles but can he play quarterback in the National Football League?

Mattison’s reply is the same every time the question is asked.

“I just tell them, look, Tim Tebow is the most unique kid I’ve ever been around,” Mattison said. “I’ve never met anyone more determined, never met anyone who when he said he’s going to do something did whatever it takes to do it. He says he wants to play quarterback in the National Football League and if he says that’s what he wants to do, I’ll tell you what, he’ll do whatever it takes to play quarterback and not only that, he will be successful doing it.”

Mattison has his own perspective about Tebow’s ability to play in the league. As a defensive coordinator, he studies every quarterback in the league for tendencies, strengths and weaknesses. When he sees Tebow he sees a young quarterback who will have to make adjustments and improve in certain areas, but he also sees a quarterback who in many respects is NFL ready.

Throwing motion? Funky for sure, but Mattison says the NFL has its share of quarterbacks who don’t have the picture perfect motion and throw their share of wobbly passes. Release point? Low for sure, but Mattison brings up an interesting question in retort.

“How many of his passes were batted down at the line of scrimmage?” he asks.

Not enough time under center? Mattison points out a lot of NFL teams run a good bit of their offense from the shotgun and that Tebow can adapt to life under center.

“Of course, he’d be better off with a team that will adapt to his strengths but whoever gets this kid is going to get a kid who’s a winner, a great leader and will outwork everybody on the team to get better. I learned a long time ago, don’t question Tim Tebow. He’s going to do just fine. Someone is going to take him in the first round and a whole bunch of teams are going to look back one day and wonder why they didn’t draft him when they could have.”

* * *

After drawing criticism for fumbling several center snaps Monday, Tebow raised plenty of eyebrows with the way he threw the ball Tuesday. He showed the great touch on the deep ball, which was expected, but he also made the medium throws and the 15-20-yard out patterns, the toughest throws in the pro game.

“Tim can make all the throws,” Mattison said. “People want to talk mechanics, but the ball gets there on time and he’s accurate. Sure, there are going to be things to work on. He’ll need to get better at some things but that’s true of every quarterback in the league.

“It’s like I’ve said, he wants to be a quarterback in this league. He’ll listen to what he has to work on, then he’ll get out there and do what he has to do to get better.”

* * *

The only other Gator at the Senior Bowl is wide receiver Riley Cooper, who has impressed everyone with his speed and ability to get separation from cornerbacks. Mattison thinks Cooper has a chance to go before the fourth round.

“He’s got great size (6-3, 220) and he’s so much faster than anyone expected,” Mattison said. “He’s been very impressive. I’ve heard people saying he should go in the third round somewhere.”

* * *

While All-American middle linebacker Brandon Spikes and All-SEC defensive end Jermaine Cunningham aren’t at the Senior Bowl, Mattison thinks they will do well in the NFL.

“I wish Brandon was here,” Mattison said. “He’s going to play in the NFL — he’s a great football player — but he better run a great 40 at the combine. If he had come here and shown what he could do … that 40 time is important but maybe not quite as important if he had been here. He’ll get drafted pretty high. He’ll play in the league, but he could have helped himself by being here.”

Mattison projects Cunningham in the third or fourth round and says Cunningham could have a prosperous career if he gets in the right situation.

“He’s got tremendous quickness and he makes plays,” Mattison said. “He doesn’t have great size (6-3, 260) but he can do so many things. He’s a guy that could project as a SAM-type in the right situation. He’s a guy who needs to be in the right situation but he’ll definitely go in the draft and he’ll play in the league for awhile.”

* * *

Mattison follows the Gators religiously, particularly the recruiting class of 2010, which is a consensus number one nationally with eight days until National Signing Day. When he was on Meyer’s staff, Mattison coached the defensive line. When the Gators won the national championship in 2006, they had a six-man rotation on the D-line. Next season, the Gators will have 17 scholarship defensive linemen and 10 of them are experienced.

That’s quite a contrast to 2006 when Mattison’s six guys destroyed the Ohio State offensive line in the national championship game.

“I talked to Urban and told him, ‘yeah, you wait until I’m gone to get all that depth on the defensive line,’” Mattison quipped. “They’re really going to be good next year … really good. Watch out for my boy (Justin) Trattou. He’ll have the big year next year and he’s going to have a long NFL career. He’s going to be really, really good.”

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.