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Mathis corner for life


(Dec. 24)-There won't be any doubt in Rashean Mathis' mind going into next season. He'll be a cornerback.

Mathis was drafted in the second round last spring as a safety who offered the potential to play cornerback. In the mini-camp season, he worked at each position. Then, in training camp, he appeared to settle in permanently at free safety.

He was the Jaguars' starting free safety on opening day in Carolina, but he was back at corner midway through the second game of the season when injury depleted the Jaguars' ranks. Back and forth he went until the seventh game of the season, against the Tennessee Titans, when Mathis got his first professional start at cornerback. Nine starts later, it's very clear Mathis' days as a safety are over.

"I think he's had a great year," defensive coordinator Mike Smith said. Smith confirmed that Mathis is a permanent fixture at cornerback, on a team that may be in the process of losing its other starting cornerback, Fernando Bryant.

"To spend all of training camp and the preseason as a safety, and then get thrown into playing corner against Buffalo in the middle of the game without having any practice time, is a feat in itself. And the transition has been very smooth for him," Smith said.

Mathis takes two interceptions and a team-leading 15 passes-defensed into this Sunday's season finale in Atlanta. Just as impressively, Mathis is one of those rare players who was a starter in every game of his rookie season. In fact, Mathis missed only two defensive snaps this whole season.

"It's been a good year. I've learned a lot. The players and coaches prepared me in things I could do to take care of my body, so I never hit the rookie wall, so to speak," Mathis said.

At Bethune-Cookman, he was an interceptions record-holder. There was no questioning his ball skills. But the level of competition was certainly questioned, and no one was quite sure where he fit in the pro game. Was he physical enough to be an NFL safety? If not, was he skilled enough to be a corner?

"Basically, it's all footwork and reaction," Mathis said of the skills necessary to play cornerback. "If you don't got it, you don't got it."

Smith is certain Mathis has it.

"He has very good ball skills and he has all of the measurables. The more he gets exposed out there, the better he's going to get," Smith said. "It's going to be huge," he added of the improvement that can be expected in Mathis next season. "Many of the things that occur next year he will have already seen."

That makes Mathis one of the building blocks on a defense that has surged to premier status in just head coach Jack Del Rio's first year. And Mathis expects the Jaguars defense to "be a great one; I think it's going to be something special. We didn't want this to be a learning season, but it is."

In other news, Del Rio told reporters this afternoon that an MRI exam of Tony Brackens' right knee revealed "a cartilage problem in there. He'll have that scoped at some point in time. We will hold out hope he can go (this Sunday). We'll see," Del Rio said.

Brackens underwent microfracture surgery in his left knee in 2002.

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