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Beacons by position: Matthes earns national acclaim heading into final season
FB: With punter set, Valpo has a spirited kicking competition in preseason camp
First in a series of nine position previews leading up to the Valparaiso football season opener on Aug. 31. This preview is open to all readers. The rest of the positional previews will be available only to paid subscribers of The Victory Bell.
Evan Matthes knows where he sits in the football hierarchy.
The sixth-year senior has been around college football long enough to know the harsh truth of his position. Punters are like lawyers. You don’t want one, but if you need one, you want a good one.
Valparaiso has a good one.
“It’s a joke that I make all the time,” Matthes said. “The only two people excited to see me out on the field are my mom and the defense.”
Matthes arrived at Valparaiso last fall after spending the first four years of his career at West Virginia. The Reston, Virginia native never saw any game action for the Mountaineers, but he spent plenty of time honing his craft. When it came time to pick a graduate program and a new team, Matthes found an easy landing spot with the Beacons.
“When I first came here, Coach (Landon) Fox said that they’d love to have me, but that I had to earn my spot,” Matthes said. “Other places were telling me it would be cool if I went there, but Coach Fox told me that they’d love to have me and that I’d be a great addition. He also told me that it wasn’t going to be a cakewalk. He, and everybody else here, just has instilled a lot of confidence in me.”
Matthes certainly has the leg to earn that confidence. When he joined the roster last year, Matthes was following in the footsteps of one of the best punters in Valparaiso history. Ben Niesner earned a plethora of accolades in his three seasons with the program. The Portland State transfer tied a program mark in the COVID-shortened 2021 spring season with an average of 43.6 yards per punt. He followed that up with 43.2 yards in the fall after being named to the FCS Punter of the Year Preseason Watch List. It’s the same list that Matthes finds himself on after a strong debut with Valparaiso last year.
Matthes made his mark early, averaging 48.1 yards on seven punts in the season opener against Indiana Wesleyan. He blasted a 61-yard punt in the opener and followed that up later in the season with a career-high 67-yard punt against San Diego. That punt tied for the longest punt in the Pioneer Football League all season.
Matthes finished the year by being named to the All-PFL Second Team and he was named Valparaiso’s Special Teams Player of the Year. Now, much like Niesner, Matthes has been named to the FCS Punter of the Year Watch List.
The Sports Administration graduate student jumped at the chance to come back for a final season of college football. Matthes loved getting the chance to finally play last season and he’s eager to spend more time around his teammates, even if he knows that they never want to see him on the field.
“A perfect day for me is that I get on the bus and I eat with the team and then we go out and I sit on the sidelines all day,” Matthes said. “That’s the perfect day. For me, I’m not the kind of guy that’s sitting there on third-and-long and praying that I get a chance to go out there and punt. I’m always watching where we’re at on the field. Are we on the left hash? What kind of punt would it be? I’m focused on the game and I’m cheering on the offense. The only time I want to be on the field is to hold an extra point or a field goal. That said, I’m always ready to go.”
Beacons looking for a new kicker
While Matthes is comfortable in his job status for the 2023 season - he is the only punter on the roster after all - Valparaiso has a wide open competition at the kicker position.
Gone is Brian Bartholomew after a season in which he drilled the game-winning 50-yard field goal in the season opener against Indiana Wesleyan and added eight more field goals as well. Bartholomew finished 9-15 on field goals and 28-31 on extra points and was second on the team with 55 points. It was a slight drop from the 2021 fall season when Bartholomew really shined by hitting 75 percent of his field goals and all but one of his 33 extra points.
Bartholomew transferred to the University of Findlay, a NCAA Division II program in Ohio, for his final season of eligibility.
Competing for the position this season is a quartet of kickers with little-to-no collegiate experience.
Patrick Oliva is a redshirt senior from South Bend. He’s been with the program since 2019 and he’s appeared in just one game during that stretch. Oliva made his collegiate debut with a kickoff against Dartmouth in the fall of 2021.
Ryan Hawk is a redshirt sophomore that has arguably the most experience of any of the kickers on the roster. The Columbus, Ohio native handled three kickoffs in the fall 2021 season opener against Indiana Wesleyan and another against North Dakota State before giving way to Bartholomew for the rest of the season. Hawk didn’t receive any game action last year.
Valparaiso has two new kickers on the roster this year, including former Valpo High kicker Liam Shepherd. Shepherd made 78.5 percent (22-28) of his field goals and 96.4 percent (110-114) of his extra points in high school. His game-winning field goal against Penn in Week 1 of the 2020 season helped jumpstart a stellar senior season. Shepherd originally committed to the University of Indianapolis, but then decommitted to join Ball State as a preferred walk-on for the 2021 season. He never saw any action for Ball State and after two years he has enrolled at Valparaiso where he’ll play on the same field he worked out on as a kid.
The final kicker on the roster is another Region product in Crown Point graduate Cody Fischl. The true freshman was named an Indiana Region 1 IFCA North All-Star last season and he verbally committed to Valparaiso in late April. Fischl’s Twitter account (@FischlCody, and yes, we’re still calling it Twitter here) is littered with videos of him blasting the ball all over the field. Should Matthes need a break, Fischl appears to have an outstanding punting leg as well.
“All of these kickers are really competitive guys,” Matthes said. “They all want the job. We got guys out here that are excited to play. It’s just a matter of who is going to take that next step and push us in the right direction. We need a guy that doesn’t care about any accolades, but just wants to make sure that when it’s his time to go that he’ll be locked in.”
With more than two weeks from the season opener, Fox has yet to make a determination as to who will handle kickoffs, field goals and extra points, or if it will be by committee going into the season. The fifth-year head coach does know that he enjoys the competition in camp.
“I think anytime you lose one of the best kickers in school history, you have to be concerned,” Fox said. “You always think as a coach that we’ve got that ‘next man up’ mentality and that’s what we want. We want the guys to think that, but the reality is it’s hard to do with all that Brian was able to do here. As we go through camp, we need to put these guys in pressure situations to see how they respond.”
Vercher had breakout as kick returner
While Aaron Dawson was taking up the bulk of rushing attempts last season, true freshman running back Jeffery Vercher had to find other ways to make an impact on the field. Limited to just nine carries on the year, Vercher found a role as Valparaiso’s primary kick returner when Chuck Maxwell was sidelined.
Vercher had a breakout performance against Dartmouth, turning four kick returns into 112 yards, including a 48-yard return that helped setup Valparaiso’s first touchdown of the game. The Nashville, Tennessee native finished the year with 455 kick return yards.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that Vercher is the only returning player with multiple kick returns on the roster this year. Valpo will need depth behind Vercher on kickoffs and will need to find a new punt returner as well. Last season’s punt returner, Josh Becton, entered the transfer portal, leaving the Beacons with just Matt Martin’s two punt returns for three yards against New Mexico State as the only experience in the unit.
Matthes isn’t worried as he believes a couple of transfers could have an impact in the return game.
“Vercher is a great kid and I love working with him,” Matthes said. “All of these punt returners that we’ve got out there now with (Albany transfer Brandon) Jimenez and (Millsaps transfer) Moise (Tezzo). They want to go and score a touchdown off a punt return. I love when they all come over and ask me about different punts and what I was thinking. They want to learn how to catch these better and how they can return the ball better. All of these guys want to be the best they can on special teams because they know that catching a punt is one of the hardest things to do in football.”
The Victory Bell will have a position-by-position preview of the 2023 roster beginning on Monday, Aug. 14. Each positional preview will include a player feature, as well as a look at the returners, newcomers and key players lost.
Aug. 14 - Specialists
Aug. 16 - Quarterbacks
Aug. 18 - Defensive Line
Aug. 20 - Running Backs
Aug. 22 - Linebackers
Aug. 24 - Wide Receivers
Aug. 26 - Tight Ends
Aug. 28 - Defensive Backs
Aug. 30 - Offensive Line
(Photos courtesy of Valpo Athletics)