JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – It was a regular bowl practice for just about every player on the Indiana football roster.
For two of them, it was a homecoming.
Indiana dsafeties Khalil Bryant and Devon Matthews have a bit more of a vested interest in Thursday’s TaxSlayer Gator Bowl than most players involved in the game.
Bryant graduated from First Coast High School in 2016 and Matthews, who goes by the nickname, ‘Monster,’ graduated from Ribault in 2018. They are the only two players from the area on the roster of either Tennessee (7-5) or Indiana (8-4), who face off at 7 p.m. in the 75th Gator Bowl.
The Hoosiers are heavy with Sunshine State players (26), but only three of those are from north of Daytona Beach — Bryant, Matthews and fifth-year linebacker Reakwon Jones (from Lynn Haven in the Panhandle-area). Tennessee has just nine Floridians on its roster.
“Those two guys are from this area specifically, but it was kind of the same way we get all of our guys down in this area,” said Indiana coach Tom Allen. “We have coaches in the areas that are assigned to certain spots and we recruit those areas over and over and over every year.
“We have built relationships with high school coaches and are able to identify guys when they are young, even a guy like Monster that did not play a lot of football. He was more of a basketball guy when he was younger and he thought that was going to be his sport. He realized that he had a chance to make a career for himself in football."
Bryant’s advice to the bulk of the non-Florida roster?
“For one, I told them, ‘get ready for the weather,’” he said. “Got to experience the rain, we got humid[ity], I know a lot people are not used to that and it’s been about four years since I’ve been here. I’ve been caught off-guard, too.”
Bryant, a true senior, is second on the Hoosiers in tackles with 53 tackles and a fumble recovery. The fact that he gets to finish his college career in his hometown is
“I’m just thankful for the opportunity and I’m just working so hard to make the best of it, make the most of this opportunity,” he said.
Matthews, a true sophomore, is sixth with 34 tackles. For a player who took his sophomore season off to concentrate on playing basketball before getting back into football as a junior, the homecoming is special on multiple fronts.
The best? His family and friends get to stay in town and watch him play.
“It feels real good, my family, feels great for them too, they’re able to come to the game without traveling very far so its real good for them and me as well,” Matthews said.
For the Hoosiers, the Gator Bowl is about as big as it gets for the program. Allen’s team has turned in its best season since 1993. A win over Tennessee would give Indiana just its third nine-win season in program history, and first since 1967.
“It feels real good, that ninth win’s going to be real good for us, especially for our future,” Matthews said. “This game right here’s going to build up for our future as well, too.”