Washington Huskies

No longer ‘a child,’ Joe Mathis relishing chance to play outside linebacker

UW senior Joe Mathis is looking forward to getting his chance at the outside linebacker position.
UW senior Joe Mathis is looking forward to getting his chance at the outside linebacker position. Staff photographer

Joe Mathis is a senior now, ready to prove he’s all grown up. He turns 21 years old Saturday. He recently qualified for inclusion on the Washington Huskies’ treasured “3.0 board,” reserved for football players who achieve a 3.0 grade-point average in a given quarter. Mathis had never made it before. He credits his fiancee for urging him along.

This is a different Mathis from the one who arrived at Washington as a true freshman in 2013, coach Steve Sarkisian’s fifth and final season at UW. Sarkisian left for USC that December, and UW hired Chris Petersen to replace him. Mathis resisted the change.

“It was hard,” Mathis said after UW’s second spring practice Wednesday, “because I was a child. I didn’t know what was good and what was not.”

In about three months, he’ll be a father. Mathis said his fiancee, Savitri, is due to give birth to their son July 31. Suddenly, change is all around him. He embraces it now. Especially on the football field.

After playing defensive line his first three seasons, Mathis, listed at 6-foot-2 and 256 pounds, is working now as an outside linebacker — he said he’ll spend time at both the coveted “buck” position and at strongside (SAM) linebacker — which is where he always wanted to be, anyway. It’s also what he played in high school and what he wants to play in the NFL.

He dabbled there last spring, before coaches instead decided to employ the speed of fifth-year senior Travis Feeney. Feeney had a big season, earning second-team All-Pac-12 honors after totaling eight sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss. The year prior, Hau’oli Kikaha set UW’s single season sacks record from the buck position, which demands frequent pass rushing and some coverage responsibilities.

“I was supposed to play linebacker last year, but they needed to find a way to get Travis and Cory (Littleton) and all of us on the field,” Mathis said. “So I moved down to four-eye (defensive lineman head-up on the offensive tackle).”

Petersen seemed non-committal about the position when asked on Monday, saying “those guys are so interchangeable.”

“We’ll have another good couple of buck linebackers when it’s said and done,” Petersen said. “I don’t know who that is right now, but I know that we have some really good coaches, and we have some young talent, so some guys will emerge. Excited to see that battle go.”

Mathis’ UW career arc has been something of a battle, too. He thought about transferring during his sophomore season but ultimately decided to stay after Petersen encouraged him to stick it out. The coach praises him publicly for his growing maturity.

“Coach Pete taught me adversity is a key component of a champion, but an enemy of the weak,” Mathis said. “So either you’re going to run away from it, or you’re going to be a man and stand there and fight. So that’s what I did.”

He totaled 53 tackles and four sacks in 34 games his first three seasons. He would like to improve those numbers this year at outside linebacker — buck or SAM — where Kikaha, Feeney and Littleton harassed quarterbacks before him.

“I look forward to that,” Mathis said of trying to replicate their form. “I feel like if they weren’t here, I would have been in their situation. I’m just ready to go. I’m happy I learned from one of the best in Hau’oli and Cory Littleton, but I’m ready to go. It’s my turn now.”

Christian Caple: 253-597-8437, @ChristianCaple