Redshirt junior R.J. Mattes has been like a nomad on the NC State front line. The versatile lineman started at right guard as a redshirt freshman before tearing his ACL just five plays into the Florida State contest. He worked hard to get back on the field in less than a year and returned in the third game of the 2010 campaign, seeing action as a reserve at right tackle against Cincinnati.
He started the final ten games of the season at his new position and graded out as the top starter on the offensive line in eight contests. With the graduation of left tackle Jake Vermiglio, the coaching staff decided to move its most experienced lineman to Vermiglio's vacated role. Mattes has appeared in 19 games with 18 starts, totaling 1,221 snaps, while allowing just five sacks.
However, the toughest transition for Mattes was not bumping out from guard to tackle, it was flipping from right tackle to the left side.
"[Moving from guard to tackle] is more about the sets," the 6-foot-6, 310-pounder said. "At guard, you take one step and you're in your set. At tackle, you could be kicking for a corner so you have to make sure your steps are good but you cant be rushing out there and go too far because they'll just go inside. The biggest change wasn't from guard to tackle, it was from right side to left side.
"I'm on the left side now, it's like learning how to ride a bike all over again - you have to switch your stance over and all that stuff. I played [left tackle] in high school so it wasn't too bad of a transition but I had to get used to it again."
Mattes is also getting used to summer camp again. He was not able to participate in summer conditioning or preseason camp last year due to his injury but he smiled when asked if he was excited to be out in full pads despite the heat, saying, "oh yeah, it's always good hitting the defense."
The summer activity has also helped the big man's confidence. While he was thrust into the lineup last year before being where he wanted to be physically, he's had the whole spring and summer to prepare for 2011.
"Last year, I was not able to run in the offseason conditioning so, first day, I was out of breath, I wasn't in shape at all," he said. "This year, I got to run all summer, I'm able to participate in camp so I'm a lot more in shape this year. I don't have to worry about being behind the eight ball, I'm up to par with everybody else on the offensive line."
Mattes expects the results to be most visible when the Pack kicks off their season against Liberty on Sept. 3.
"I went into game week [last year] and had only four or five practices before I was playing," he said. "Now, I have 30-plus practices before the first game. Obviously, that makes me more comfortable. There's a difference between being in shape and being in football shape where you have to be in full pads, blocking everybody, knowing the schemes and all that stuff. It's a big difference this year."
The native of Concord, N.C. has also been encouraged by how the offensive line is coming together. Mikel Overgaard is the only senior listed as a starter on the first organizational chart of the summer, but the fivesome has combined for 76 appearances and 47 starts. Overgaard is also the only lineman on the two-deep that hasn't spent his entire career in Raleigh.
"We've been together for a while now, we've grown up together," Mattes noted. "We're only missing Andrew [Wallace, a veteran of 24 games] right now because of an ACL but he'll be back and we're gelling really good. We're not over there without knowing what to do, we know what to do, now it's just about executing the plays. It's a lot less thinking and more of being physical, which is a good thing. We're a lot more physical this year than thinking about what we need to do."
Although Vermiglio is the only lineman who played significant time last year and is not returning, the group did get a new position coach when head man Tom O'Brien switched Jim Bridge to mentoring the line and Jim Bridge moved to tight ends coach.
"[The routines] are similar, nothing's changed," Mattes said. "It's the same daily schedule, nothing is different; all it was, was a coaching change. They're both great coaches, I'm not going to compare and contrast the two coaches. I love them both and Coach O'Brien made the decision, we'll just go with the decision."
Mattes' father, Ron, played at Virginia while O'Brien was on staff with the Cavaliers from 1981-84 before playing eight seasons in the NFL. Because of those ties, R.J. grew up going to countless games in Charlottesville and is looking forward to playing there this fall. However, there's always one thing he looks forward to most: beating the Pack's biggest rival.
"Every year beating Carolina is the greatest highlight," he said. "That was a fun game to be a part of and we were all thrilled to be a part of that.
"Also, beating West Virginia in the bowl game was huge. Ending the season on a great note is always a good thing because it gives momentum in the spring and high expectations for this year coming into fall camp."
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