Clay’s all grown up now

Posted Sep 23, 2012

The Clay Matthews who is coming to CenturyLink Field with the Packers on Monday night to face the Seahawks is not the same Clay Matthews who walked on at USC for Pete Carroll in 2004.

The long blond locks flowing from under his helmet. Those biceps that bulge during the flex that is his sack celebration. The sacks by the bagfull.

They have become the trademarks of Clay Matthews, who has dropped opposing quarterbacks 35.5 times and been voted to three consecutive Pro Bowls since joining the Green Bay Packers in 2009.

But the now 6-foot-3, 255-pound Matthews had none of these identifying traits when he first arrived at USC as a walk-on in 2004. OK, the blond locks were there, just not as long or flowing.

“He was 208 pounds. Not real fast. Kind of skinny,” Pete Carroll said the other day.

These two will be reunited at CenturyLink Field on Monday night when the Carroll-coached Seahawks host the Packers in their only “Monday Night Football” appearance of the season – and only their second gig on the primetime showcase in the past five seasons.

“We didn’t recruit him as much as we just wanted to bring him on,” Carroll said.

And Matthews was a legacy, since his father and uncle – Clay and Bruce – also played at USC before starting long and highly productive NFL careers. The Trojans also count other members of the Matthews’ extended family as alums. Even after a redshirt season, Matthews was a special teams player in 2005 and didn’t get a scholarship until 2006. On defense, he played behind Brian Cushing, a first-round draft choice by the Houston Texans in 2009.

“Clay just didn’t get his playing time until late,” Carroll said. “But he had a great college career, quickly, and just emerged right at the end. But it was all connected to the family. We were lucky the family had been there before us.”

It made for a great story, but a bigger story in the game will be the Seahawks’ ability to find this guy and then block him.

They had success with another sack-master last week, limiting the Cowboys’ DeMarcus Ware to two solo tackles, one QB hit and no sacks. But Matthews is a different animal.

“They’re two different players, but the impact they have on the game is very, very much the same,” said Michael Robinson, the Seahawks’ Pro Bowl fullback. “DeMarcus is a bigger guy (6-4, 254). A bigger animal, so to speak. He’s very, very long, so he can keep people off of him.

“Clay is built a little smaller and is a little bit more explosive. He beats you with effort. I’ve seen him blocked and then just the fact that he’s fighting and scraping, he gets the sack. He’s just a big, big high-effort guy who obviously has some physical talent.”

Carroll has seen the same uncanny characteristics.

“He has found ways to make plays that are just outside of the norm, because he has such relentless effort,” Carroll said. “He is just such a fantastic effort guy that it may be the latest moment of a play and he finds a way to twist or spin or get underneath a guy and finish to make his plays that not everybody can get to, because they don’t play that hard. He just has this amazing ability and nature to play with such great effort that he finds ways.

“I didn’t recognize how good he was early.”

And once he did? “It was obvious that he needed to be doing everything we could think of,” Carroll said. “Now that he’s arrived, I think he’s one of the truly special effort guys in the league. I think that’s how he gets it done. He’s quick. He’s strong. He’s instinctive. But what separates him, he’s just relentless.”

How do you block a guy like this? By committee.

“We have to have a variety of ways,” Carroll said. “He’s going to be on Russell (Okung, left tackle) a number of times. There’s going to be times when the tight ends will block him. There will be times when Russell and tight ends will block him.”

Carroll paused briefly for a nervous laugh before continuing, “There will be the combinations of the backs chipping, and protection going that way. We’re going to do everything we can to not let him be the factor he has been in the first two games.”

Ah, the first two games. Matthews had 2.5 sacks in the Packers’ opening-day loss to the San Francisco 49ers and followed that with 3.5 in a victory over the Chicago Bears.

“Six sacks in two games is sick,” Carroll said. “I don’t know how that happens.”

Carroll then paused again before offering another option.

“Just keep rolling out to the right,” he laughed.

That would be away from the one-time 208-pounder who wasn’t very fast and kind of skinny.