ESPN RISE catches up with Clay Matthews

ESPN RISE caught up with former USC star linebacker Clay Matthews III, who's a potential first-round pick in the 2009 NFL draft. But Matthews' football career didn't always look so promising. When he was a junior at Agoura (Agoura Hills, Calif.), Matthews didn't even start on the varsity team where his dad, Clay Matthews, a former Pro Bowl linebacker, was the defensive coordinator. By the time he was a senior, Matthews was an unknown in recruiting circles and garnered interest from I-AA programs and junior colleges.

But after graduating from Agoura in 2004, Matthews decided to walk on at USC, where his father and uncle, NFL Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews, starred. Matthews had to prove himself all over again and it finally paid off his senior year, when he became a standout starter for the Trojans. He finished the year with 56 tackles, including five in USC's win over Penn State in the Rose Bowl.

Matthews took time out from preparing for the draft to answer five questions about his incredible rise to stardom.

ESPN RISE: What was it like being benched as a junior when your dad was the defensive coordinator?
Matthews: It's obviously frustrating when you're not playing. But looking back on it, I wasn't ready. I wasn't big enough, strong enough or smart enough.

RISE: How did past experiences of being slighted lead you to become the player you are today?
Matthews: I was always having someone saying I was undersized and I wasn't ready. I think that's why I played with such a chip on my shoulder. As a walk-on [at USC], I did have to work harder.

RISE: What motivated you to decide to try to walk on at USC?
Matthews: The biggest thing really is that there's so much SC history in my family, and I kind of felt like that's where I wanted to end up. I didn't think I'd be in the position I am today, but I started to learn every day in practice that I could be so much more.

RISE: What do you credit for you making it further than the majority of players who were rated higher than you in high school?
Matthews: I think it's more of a testament of how much harder I've worked. It's not every day you hear about a walk-on being a potential first-round pick.

RISE: What advice would you give to someone in your position now, and how do you feel being perceived as a role model?
Matthews: Who am I to tell someone they can't play Division I football? I was told I couldn't do this, and look at where I am now. I'm proving everybody wrong, including myself. It really builds a strong work ethic. Just because I've been able to live it, I didn't really think it was special. It really puts it into perspective. Hopefully, they can follow my example, and if not be successful hopefully learn a lot through life experiences.

More Draft Prospects Who Surprised Experts

Besides Matthews, there are a number of other top prospects who weren't on the recruiting radar back in high school. Here are the five who are the biggest surprises. Players listed in alphabetical order

Aaron Curry
E.E. Smith (Fayetteville, N.C.)
Linebacker, Class of 2004
Curry ended up signing as an unheralded recruit with a school known more for its hoops (Wake Forest) than its play on the gridiron. Five years later, Curry was in the discussion for the No. 1 overall pick in the draft.

Larry English
Marmion Academy (Aurora, Ill.)
Linebacker, Class of 2004
Usually top players in the greater Chicago area are scooped up by the likes of Notre Dame and Illinois. But aside from some mid-major interest, nobody knew about English. So he signed with Northern Illinois, where he became a potential first-round pick.

Jarron Gilbert
Chino (Calif.)
Defensive tackle/end, Class of 2004
You couldn't even find Gilbert in recruiting databases in 2004. Luckily, San Jose State discovered him, and he delivered a whopping 22 tackles for loss in his final season. He'll likely hear his name called within the first two rounds of the draft.

B.J. Raji
Westwood (Washington Township, N.J.)
Defensive tackle, Class of 2004
Though Raji was a star at Westwood, he didn't receive too much interest from the college football world. No matter. All he did was become a star at Boston College, and will likely be the first defensive tackle selected in this year's NFL draft.

Jason Smith
W.T. White (Dallas)
Offensive tackle, Class of 2004
Smith wasn't even considered a top 100 recruit in his state, let alone the country. And he started out at Baylor as a tight end. But after moving to offensive tackle, he transformed himself into an All-American, and potentially the No. 1 offensive lineman selected in this year's draft.

Jon Mahoney covers high school sports for ESPN RISE Magazine.