An unprepared Tyler Matakevich stood on stage in a black and white tuxedo next to the University of Alabama senior linebacker Reggie Ragland.
In the hours leading up to the presentation of the Bronko Nagurski Award Dec. 7 at the Charlotte Touchdown Club, the senior linebacker did not prepare a speech for the chance he won the award for college football’s top defensive player.
Before Matakevich went on stage, coach Matt Rhule wrote a speech for linebacker, but he refused. As his name was called to receive the Nagurski Award, Matakevich wished he had followed Rhule’s guidance.
“When I stood up and they called me name, I was like, ‘Holy crap, maybe I should have looked at that piece of paper,’” Matakevich said. “It was just such a surreal moment, something I will never forget.”
Along with the Nagurski, Matakevich won the Chuck Bednarik Award, given to college football’s top defensive player by the Maxwell Football Club.
He also received the American Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year and was named to the Associated Press first team all-American after totaling 126 tackles and a career-high 41/2 sacks in 2015.
“It was something special,” Matakevich said. “It was a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
This season was the fourth consecutive that Matakevich totaled 100 or more tackles, and he was the only Football Bowl Subdivision player to lead his team in tackles in every game this season.
In total, Matakevich has claimed 11 awards and honors, starting with the conference’s defensive player of the year Nov. 2, the impact of which will be felt by current and future Temple players.
“It’s a great individual achievement, but I think it’s bigger for this university, especially the Temple football team,” Matakevich said. “It something that I take a lot of pride in, and I hope these young guys and these incoming freshman realize a kid from Temple can do something special.”
Rhule, who led the Owls to a 10-3 record this season, said he began to feel the program-wide impact of Matakevich’s accolades when he watched the senior win the Bednarik Award.
“When he won, it was a really powerful moment for Tyler and his family,” Rhule said. “But really for the program and this school. … to see everyone across the country talking about our football team and hear people on the College Football Playoff Committee talk about how they watched our team play, I just thought it was a really powerful week.”
One award Matakevich did not win was the Lott IMPACT Trophy, given to the defensive player that has the greatest influence on his team. Penn State senior defensive lineman Carl Nassib claimed the award after totaling 151/2 sacks this season.
Junior quarterback P.J. Walker said Matakevich’s other awards are steering the football program in a new direction.
“I think it is helping the program get to where it wants to get,” Walker said. “Tyler getting a lot of press going around—ESPN, things like that—everyone is getting to see the outcome of him being a hard worker. Also, it shows that he has a lot of great guys around him helping him perform everyday.”
After winning a football state championship in 2011 at St. Joseph’s High School in Trumbull, Connecticut, Matakevich spent a year a Milford Academy, a preparatory school in New Berlin, New York.
Following the season, Temple was Matakevich’s lone FBS scholarship offer. Rhule was the recruiting coordinator under former coach Steve Addazio when Matakevich was recruited to the program.
“It’s a testament to his will and his work ethic, and it goes to remind me that talent is the most intangible because you couldn’t measure it, you couldn’t identify it on a chart,” Rhule said. “But whatever it is, he has it.”
In Matakevich’s first two seasons, Temple won six games. In 2014, Rhule’s second season as coach, the team won six games. This year, the squad has the chance to be the first team in program history to win 11 games if they defeat the University of Toledo Dec. 22 in the Marmot Boca Raton Bowl.
With one more game in a Temple uniform, Matakevich can soon look back at the foundation he laid for a football program that has had six teams win six-or-more games since 1990. Two of those team’s were led by Matakevich, ranked a two-star recruit out of high school by Rivals.com.
In Temple’s 2016 recruiting class, there are five three-star recruits and 19 total commits according to Rivals.com.
“From recruiting, you should see our recruiting highlight video, to getting the word out across the country, to shaking everyone’s preconceived notions of what Temple football is,” Rhule said. “The expectation level has been risen to such a degree, and within our own program. The freshmen that are here understand that this is what you can do at Temple—you can stand there with a kid from Alabama and a kid from Penn State and win a national award.”
Michael Guise can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @Michael_Guise