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Coming home


His given name is Rashean Jamil Mathis, but those who know him well call him "Shotime," because every time he steps between the white lines on the football field he simply puts on a show.

"I got that nickname in college (at Bethune-Cookman) when our punt returner, Antonio Stanley, was injured and I went in the game and took my first punt return all the way back to the house for a touchdown," Mathis said. "Ever since then, people have been calling me Shotime."

That punt return during his freshman year was just a small indication of things to come. Mathis had a stellar career at Bethune-Cookman College. He was a three-time Division I-AA All-America who intercepted 31 passes in four seasons, breaking the I-AA career record of 28 held by Dave Murphy of Holy Cross. Mathis also was the first defensive back to win the Buck Buchanan Award as the nation's top defensive player, after he shattered the Division I-AA season records for interceptions and interception return yards (667) as a senior. He finished his career with 200 tackles, 41 pass deflections, three fumble recoveries and three forced fumbles.

"Bethune was a good experience," said Mathis, the Jaguars' second-round draft choice. "I wouldn't trade it for anything. If I would have gone to a bigger school, I probably wouldn't have worked as hard as I am working now. I didn't have the TV exposure and things like that to get my name out there, so I had to work harder than everyone else."

Mathis arrived at Bethune-Cookman under unusual circumstances. He was being recruited very heavily by all the major schools, and Florida State and Florida were both calling his house almost every day. He had decided to go to FSU before he broke his leg in the seventh game of his senior season, eight months before graduation.

"I started off very strong my senior year (at Englewood High school on Jacksonville's Southside)," Mathis said. "I think I had something like eight interceptions in six games. In that seventh game, I was returning a kickoff and my cleat got stuck in the turf when I was trying to make a cut. My ankle got rolled over and I dislocated it, so I popped it back in place right there on the field and that's when the doctor said I broke my leg."

The 6-foot-1, 202-pound Jacksonville native had a full recovery from the injury, but the scholarship offer from Florida State was gone.

"I can't blame them," Mathis said. "Everything worked out for the best."

Mathis decided to take his chances at a small college like Bethune-Cookman rather than walking on to the football team at Florida State, even though he knew this decision might come back to haunt him when NFL draft time rolled around. A lot of NFL teams are leery of selecting players high in the draft who played at small schools because they believe the talent level at smaller schools isn't great.

"I know some people think the talent level isn't that good in Division I-AA, but they're wrong," Mathis said. "What people don't realize is that the biggest difference between I-A and I-AA is the size of the lineman on the offensive and defensive lines. At the skill positions, people are the same size. I know I didn't face the best receivers every week in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, but at the same time people in the Big Ten don't face great receivers every week, either."

"I think small-school stars are very hard to evaluate," one NFL general manager said. "You'll get the name and you'll get a grade on him, but they are very hard to evaluate because they're playing against lower-level competition."

The Jaguars had no problems evaluating Mathis' talent level. They took one look at his size, speed and play-making ability and selected him in the second-round, the 39th choice overall in the 2003 draft. Vice president of player personnel James Harris and head coach Jack Del Rio raved about his ball-hawking skills before the draft, and they were secretly hoping that the former Englewood High star would still be available when their selection rolled around.

The Jaguars' pass defense finished 13th in the league in 2002 and gave up 19 touchdowns in the air, so a defensive back with good size and range was a definite need for the club. With the 38th pick, the Dallas Cowboys drafted Al Johnson, a center from Wisconsin, so that left the door open for the Jaguars to select Mathis.

"Draft day was a crazy scene," Mathis said. "My friend, Keith Abbott at Walt Disney World, threw a big draft day party for me and my family at the ESPN Club in Orlando. When the phone rang and the Jaguars were on the line and they told me that I was their pick, everyone went nuts. I couldn't even hear coach Del Rio on the phone — all I heard was my mom screaming. It was a good time."

"What we like about Rashean is that he is a playmaker," Harris said. "He had 14 interceptions as a senior and 11 as a sophomore. The ball just seems to find him. He has good size and speed. He's a 4.4 guy. He can play both cornerback and safety, so he gives us an opportunity to try him at two positions in the secondary."

The first position the Jaguars tried him at was the safety position. From his first day on the job until the last day of training camp, he was entrenched in a training camp battle with the incumbent starter at free safety, Marlon McCree, a job Mathis eventually won. While most rookies would have been a little nervous about coming in and battling a veteran for a job, Mathis was unfazed.

"It made me take my job more seriously right off the bat," Mathis said. "I knew the coaches wanted me to produce somehow on the field, whether I was a starter or not, so it changed my focus heading into camp and I snapped in mentally really quickly."

Mathis started the first six games of the season at free safety notching 23 tackles, one interception and five passes defensed. But he was criticized in the media for not being aggressive enough and avoiding contact on too many occasions.

"I heard all of the talk, but I took it like I take every negative thing that comes my way — I try to turn it around and make it a positive," Mathis said. "The next couple of games I laid some big hits, so they laid off all of those remarks. The critics are going to say whatever they want, so you can't let it bother you."

Mathis remained at free safety until the third quarter of the Miami game in Week Six when cornerback Jason Craft went down with a sprained knee. Mathis was shifted to cornerback in Craft's spot, and he has been there ever since.

"Rashean has done a nice job," Del Rio said. "He is a guy with great range, and he has the size and speed that we covet and the production to match it."

There have been some bright moments and not-so-bright moments for Mathis since he made the move from safety to corner. In his first visit to Nashville to face the division-rival Titans, Tennessee quarterback Steve McNair went right at Mathis on the first play from scrimmage. But Mathis intercepted the ball in the end zone. And in New York, against the Jets, after playing solid defense for most of the game, Mathis was beaten by Jets receiver Santana Moss for a game-winning touchdown.

"Against the Jets, I had my eyes opened," Mathis said. "Moving to corner has been a big transition, but it's been good for me. There is more communication that goes along with being a safety, but at corner there are more one-on-one matchups. I'm taking it all in stride and feeling more and more comfortable every game."

For Mathis, a long-time Jaguars fan who actually sold soft drinks at Jaguars home games during high school, playing in the NFL for his hometown team is nothing short of a dream come true.

"It's been great and I couldn't ask for a better situation than what I have here in Jacksonville," Mathis said. "I just want to continue getting better because the record is what it is, so we have to stay focused on the big picture. This team is getting better every day, and next year I really believe we are going to shock the football world."

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