Leaving those from Chip Kelly’s gang out of the conversation, the two best linebackers in the area reside about 15 miles apart.
That should come as no surprise since long before Tyler Matakevich came to Temple and Don Cherry settled in at Villanova, they were also the two best linebackers back home — just about 10 miles apart in Southern Connecticut.
Thursday night Cherry, who grew up in Trumbull, made his homecoming when the Wildcats took on Connecticut in Storrs. Tomorrow Matakevich, who hails from nearly Stratford, faces Christian Hackenberg and the Penn State Nittany Lions at the Linc .
While the two will never again meet on the playing field—since the Temple-Nova Mayor’s Cup series was discontinued after their freshman season, 2012 –they’re certainly not strangers.
"I played against him my senior year in high school," recalled Matakevich, an All-Conference choice in the AAC who was in on 117 tackles last year (his third straight season with at least 100). "He had a heck of a year last season. We’re just some small town kids trying to prove ourselves, probably having a chip in our shoulders.”
“We played each other in high school and it's been fun to see us both grow as football players,” seconded the 6-foot-1, 240 pound Cherry, who finished second in voting for the Buck Buchanan Award, which goes to the top defensive player in the FCS. "Tyler is a great player and I'm really excited to see what we both can do this year."
As senior co-captain Cherry is ready to pick up where he left off.
"This game is my favorite thing to do," said Cherry, who was in on a whopping 134 tackles last year —82 of them solos — in addition to racking up 11 sacks and forcing five fumbles. "It’s my last year, so I’m trying to make every practice count. I see little ways I can improve. My lateral explosion. Going through my reads and making them better. Just sacrificing for my teammates.
"We’re so selfless. All of them sacrificed last year to allow me to make plays, So if I can play that role this year, I’ll be fine with it.”
As for going back to his home state to start the season, it doesn’t get any better than that.
"It’s going to be a great experience,” said Cherry, the Colonial Athletic Association pre-season choice for defensive player of the year. "Having the opportunity to play the season opener of my senior year in my home state is very special for me. UConn is a great place. I have a bunch of friends there and obviously my family is from Connecticut."
Tyler Matakevich, though, won’t have opportunity. He’s just hoping there’s enough Temple fans at the Linc to counter what figures to be a heavy Penn State contingent.
"It’s gonna be awesome,"said the 6-foot-1, 232 pound Matakevich, the NCAA leader in solo tackles in 2013, averaging 8.8 per game. "Since we’ve been here stadium has never been packed like that. We need to have tunnel vision and block it all out. But we’ve put ourselves in the position of possibly making something special with this team."
“We’re the only ones stopping ourselves.”
The same applies on the Main Line, where Cherry will anchor a defense that broke more often than it bent last year for the 11-3 Wildcats, including the decisive FCS playoffs against Sam Houston State. He vows that won’t happen again.
“Every time we have a chance to finish we want to finish,” said Cherry, who’s already being heavily scouted by NFL teams. “That’s kind of our mantra this year. We all had a taste of how good it feels to win and how bad it feels when we lost. That experience should help, plus John [Robertson]’s healthy
“He can do some pretty incredible things.”
Then again, so can Cherry and Matakevich, two Connecticut Yankees who’ve thrived in Temple’s and Villanova’s respective courts.