Small-school roots helped develop Tuskegee C Matthew Reese’s drive

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Matthew Reese’s knack for standing out developed at a young age when he grew up idolizing former Atlanta Falcons running back Jamal Anderson.

General view of Tuskegee center Matthew Reese (62) in action during the 2014 regular season. Photo provided by Tuskegee Sports Information. Credit: Robin Mardis, assistant sports information director

General view of Tuskegee center Matthew Reese (62) in action during the 2014 regular season. Photo provided by Tuskegee Sports Information. Credit: Robin Mardis, assistant sports information director

He even imitated Anderson’s famous “Dirty Bird” touchdown dance to the delight of childhood friends and classmates.

“As kids, we always want to be the guy that everybody knew,” Reese said with a laugh during a telephone interview. “People rarely knew who the offensive linemen are, so he was popular coming up. I loved to see him do the dance. I got to school one day, my teacher saw me doing it, and then she had me doing it for everybody.”

Reese’s dancing days are over, and the former Tuskegee center now prefers to express himself by his play on a football field.

Reese has NFL dreams, but knows his path to the next level won’t be as easy when compared to players from highly-touted Division I programs.

Still, he offers versatility having played all five positions on Tuskegee’s offensive line during his career. Reese also has credentials from 2014 as an honorable mention All-American in D2 Football and an All-Conference selection in the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.

The native of Birmingham, Ala., capped off his senior season by being named the SIAC Offensive Lineman of the Week four times in 2014.

“I just want to be the best player,” Reese said. “Coming from a small school in the country, there aren’t that many offensive linemen that stand out, so I actually wanted to be that guy that stands out.”

The 6-3, 330-pound Reese succeeded in that goal following the 2014 regular season by receiving an invitation to participate in the 2015 Gridiron College Showcase held on Jan. 31 in Arlington, Texas.

The six-day environment leading to the game allowed him an opportunity to compete in practice against players from around the country and meet with NFL, CFL and AFL personnel.

“It was a great experience because I actually got to see more guys at a higher level, D-I level guys,” Reese said. “And I actually got a chance to see how the NFL operates with all the meetings and seminars that we had. It was a great experience.”

Reese said he received good feedback and constructive criticism while working out for the Wranglers squad in Arlington.

“My offensive line coach was telling me you got it, got to lose that weight,” Reese said. “But I passed the eye test.”

He returned to Tuskegee to train for his Pro Day after not receiving an invitation to the NFL Scouting Combine. And any doubt Reese had about whether he was good enough to play professional football quickly evaporated the morning of March 3.

Reese reported for the workout and was greeted by scouts from the Kansas City Chiefs, New York Giants and the Calgary Stampeders of the CFL.

“When I walked in to get measurements,” Reese said, “I saw the guys from the NFL and CFL. That’s when it hit me.”

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The feedback Reese received from scouts following his Pro Day workout virtually mirrored what he was told at the Gridiron College Showcase.

“They were telling me that everything was cool, but I needed to trim, I needed to lose weight,” Reese said. “The weight thing was kind of crazy because at the all-star game I was 323 (pounds).”

Reese said he learned discipline by starting a diet leading to his Pro Day workout.

And he fully understands his current weight could be a concern for potential suitors, making slimming down a priority while he remains in Tuskegee to train for the NFL Draft.

Reese said he is comfortable playing at 315 pounds, but his goal is to lose 20 pounds or get down to the optimum weight a team requests of him.

“Wherever they need me to get to,” Reese said. “I feel like when they see weight, they see tiredness. I want to show them I can drop down in weight and move better than I was actually moving.”

The good news for Reese is he will have a proven motivator by his side throughout the process in the form of his former position coach.

“I’m working out with him and I just put him on a diet,” Tuskegee offensive line coach Keith Higdon said in a telephone interview. “We got him on a diet and we’re going to shed some of those pounds off real quick. One thing about it, he’s going to work hard. He’s going to do everything to keep that weight off.”

Higdon has no doubt Reese will do what it takes to meet what prospective teams expect because of what Reese showed throughout college.

“He’s a competitor,” Higdon said. “He’s a guy that’s going to give you his all. He’s a guy that you can depend on.”

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Reese’s current weight aside, his 6-3 frame grabbed the attention of Eric Galko, owner and director of OptimumScouting.com.

“He’s a big guy,” Galko said in a telephone interview. “Plays with great strength when he is in position, he can finish blocks in pass protection and short-area run protection. I’m not sure he’s a guy who is going to be a great downfield blocker; I think he’s more a short-area, zone guy or a one-on-one matchup guy.”

Reese displayed his strength during Pro Day by bench pressing 225 pounds 28 times, a mark that would have tied for seventh-most among offensive linemen at the Combine.

While Galko appreciates Reese’s size and natural power to apply leverage, he said an area that could cause a team’s hesitation will surround Reese’s ability to handle the speed of NFL defensive linemen.

“The question I always have with small-school centers is reaction time from snapping the ball to getting in position,” Galko said. “It’s a lot harder coming from the D-II, D-III into the D-I level. Going from that snap and into position, especially for a guy that doesn’t have great position naturally, that’s the question mark I think is can he still play center at the NFL level.”

Nevertheless, Reese is accustomed to hearing the doubt over small schools and it only served as extra motivation when he was on the field earning All-Conference recognition as Tuskegee’s star center.

Reese has proven he can play center, but he can also play guard and apparently wouldn’t mind that role, especially if it provides an opportunity to pancake a defender on the edge.

“A lot of people haven’t seen me pull,” Reese said. “But I love pulling to get around and hitting the linebacker. Either one, I’m ready.”

His former college position coach agreed.

“He’s played center the last two years,” Higdon said. “He started as a tackle and we moved him to guard his sophomore year. But coming out of high school, he was a natural center. He can play either one and compete at it, no problem.”

As for his blocking style between technique and man-handling an opponent, Reese said he prefers to be physical, adding he can be a technician depending on the situation.

“I’m a little bit of both, but more of a guy that wants to maul,” Reese said. “Some plays you have to finesse. You can’t just maul the guy every play, so I say a little bit of both.”

Higdon, however, didn’t hesitate to describe Reese’s biggest strength as a blocker once his former offensive lineman got his hands on an opponent.

Finesse wasn’t part of the equation.

“A mauler, a guy that’s going to put that hat on you,” Higdon emphatically said. “You tell him you want him to dominate, go block this guy, make sure he doesn’t make the play, he’s going to do that. You tell him, ‘I need you to get to the second level, make sure that (line)backer doesn’t get on the play,’ he’s going to do that. He’ll do what you ask him to do with complete 100 percent effort.”

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The workmanlike mentality learned at Tuskegee is what Reese hopes will land him an opportunity in the NFL despite the challenging road ahead.

Galko said he would be surprised if Reese is drafted and currently ranks the former Golden Tigers star as the 17th-best center prospect of the draft.

Reese is also flying under the radar with other sites, as CBS Sports and NFLDraftScout.com currently rank him as the 44th-best center of the draft.

General view of Tuskegee center Matthew Reese (62) in action during the 2014 regular season. Photo provided by Tuskegee Sports Information. Credit: Robin Mardis, assistant sports information director

General view of Tuskegee center Matthew Reese (62) in action during the 2014 regular season. Photo provided by Tuskegee Sports Information. Credit: Robin Mardis, assistant sports information director

“Really with centers, you’ll get six in the draft,” Galko said. “In this class, there are already six centers ahead of him. I’m not sure he’s athletic enough to play guard in most systems, so I think it’s going to be can he effectively play center.”

Still, landing in the NFL requires a single team to take notice to be drafted or sign immediately as an undrafted free agent.

Higdon made it a point to reinforce that fact after Reese didn’t receive an invitation to the Combine.

“I told him all he has to do is keep doing what he’s doing, all he needs is one team to like him,” Higdon said. “That’s all it takes, just one team to like him. When you get with that team, just show them everything you got and everything else will work itself out. He has the tools a team is looking for. They’re looking for guys that can run around and has attitude, a guy who is nasty, and he has it.”

In the meantime, Reese hopes his ability to stand out like he did at Tuskegee results in the opportunity to hear his name called during draft weekend.

“If it was called, it would be awesome,” he said. “It’s a lifelong dream and I’d have to continue working hard to establish myself.”

Reese is also mentally prepared if he doesn’t hear his name on TV during the three-day event.

And if he proved anything throughout an accomplished college football career, he will remain motivated.

“If it wasn’t called, it would be real rough,” Reese said. “It would be tough to deal with, but I have to keep pushing. Hopefully I’d get a call, but I’ll keep working until somebody calls and invites me to a camp.”