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MATT SHELTON: Short, quick and nasty

Heather VanHoegarden | Friday, November 18, 2005

Matt Shelton just wanted a chance to translate his play in practice to a game. And last year, that’s exactly what he did, catching six touchdown passes to lead the Irish receiving corps, en route to breaking a record and becoming quarterback Brady Quinn’s favorite deep threat.

“The stuff I was doing, it wasn’t anything new, I just hadn’t been able to do it during the games,” Shelton said of last year. “So it was definitely nice to get the opportunity and do what I did.”

Last year, Shelton entered the Notre Dame record books by setting the single-season yards per reception record, averaging 25.75 yards per catch.

Coming to Notre Dame

Shelton was a senior in high school, and he was considering other schools when his dad suggested he go to Notre Dame for camp. So the Collierville, Tenn. native did and was offered a scholarship as a senior. But when he went back home, he tore his ACL, throwing a kink in the recruiting process.

“As soon as I tore my ACL, a lot of people just ended up running away and saying, ‘Good luck with everything in your future, but we’re going to back away now,'” Shelton said.

But the upbeat senior said he is not bitter towards those schools that stopped recruiting him. After all, it didn’t stop him from coming to Notre Dame

“That’s fine,” Shelton said of teams losing interest after his injury. “It’s understandable. I decided this was definitely the place I wanted to be because of tradition, academics, all that.”

Waiting his turn

Before last season, the speedy wide receiver was mostly used on special teams. As a junior, he caught just three passes for 80 yards, and one catch was for a 65-yard touchdown. The year before, he caught just one pass.

Shelton says the turnaround came against Stanford in 2003, when he caught that 65-yard pass and also returned three kickoffs for 51 yards. In this game, he showed what he could do in a game for the first time in three years.

“The Stanford game two years ago, I had an opportunity, and they started throwing me the ball more,” the speedy 6-foot receiver said. “They finally realized I could actually do it during the game and not just in practice.”

And so Shelton took that game, the second to last game of the 2003 regular season, and built upon it for 2004.

The breakout season

Last season, Shelton emerged as the team’s big-play threat. He played in all 12 games, starting three and catching a team-high six touchdown passes. His high game came against Pittsburgh when he caught only three passes for a career-high 128 yards. He said he was just being “opportunistic.”

“I waited around for two or three years for an opportunity here and there, and last year I finally got it and took advantage of it,” Shelton said. “And I’m trying to take advantages of my opportunities this year and do what I can whenever I’m called upon.”

Last year, he caught 20 passes for 515 yards, second on the team, and good for a 25.75 yards per catch average, a Notre Dame single-season record.

But going into the Insight Bowl, Shelton was one reception short to qualify for the record, and he had injured his knee again and could not play in the game. But interim head coach Kent Baer let Shelton play one snap, and on a forward shovel pass from quarterback Brady Quinn, Shelton recorded his 20th catch of the season, putting his name in the Notre Dame record books.

“It meant the world to me,” Shelton said of breaking the record. “That’s something not a lot of people can say they’ve done at a University, in general, but especially at a place like this, where there are so many great football players. But with this offense and Coach Weis at the helm, I don’t see that lasting too long.”

One more year

This season Shelton has taken a backseat to a pair of 6-foot-5 receivers, Jeff Samardzija and Maurice Stovall, who are breaking Notre Dame records left and right themselves. But Shelton, who has caught 18 passes for 184 yards and no touchdowns, with a long of 33 yards, is not bitter. Instead, he is just happy to be 7-2 going into the Syracuse game.

“Each year means a lot, and each year means a lot to different people in different senses of the meaning,” Shelton said. “This year’s definitely going to mean a lot in my mind, no matter what I’ve done personally on the field, this team’s done great. It’s a great group of guys – can’t say enough about them.”

His high game this year came against Purdue, when he caught seven passes for 68 yards against the Boilermakers. He also caught six passes for 87 yards, including a 33-yard completion against Michigan State, his third game back after his knee injury.

Shelton, who has fully recovered from his second injury, said the two injuries have forced him to work harder than ever before.

“It’s an injury that I wouldn’t wish upon anyone,” he said. “The actual injury when it happens, it hurts, you yell, you moan, do whatever you have to do to get through it. But the rehab is really just horrible. I was in there five days a week, sometimes six, doing rehab, once, twice a day. It’s just horrible.”

And so with two knee surgeries under his belt, where did Shelton get his lightning-quick speed?

“My dad says he was fast. I say I’m adopted,” Shelton said with a laugh. “So there’s a little bit of a discrepancy there. I don’t really know. My father and my grandfather both say they were fast when they were younger, so it came from there I guess.”

Taking a shot

After Saturday, Shelton’s football career under the Dome will be complete, but he may not be done in South Bend just yet. He plans to take a shot at the NFL, and if that doesn’t work, the marketing graduate will be back at Notre Dame working in the development office with fundraising.

“[I’m] taking my shot with football,” he said. “I’ve gotta do it, if I didn’t, I’d always wonder, “What if?” After that, I’m going to come back and work for the University.”

But for now, Shelton is focused on his last game at Notre Dame Stadium after five years playing for the Irish.

“I thought about it a little last week, just because Mom and Dad bring it up a little bit,” he said. “I don’t really know what to feel – it’s excitement, it’s sadness, a whole bunch of stuff rolled up in one.”

But while his record may be broken, Shelton says he has the most important thing from Notre Dame – his degree.

“It has been a great experience for me,” Shelton said. “The degree is the biggest thing I’m taking away from it. That’s something nobody can take away from me. Somebody can take away records, memories can fade.”

And most of all, Shelton will miss his teammates, who have played with him for three different coaches.

“This group of guys I’ve had for five years with me is a great group of guys,” he said. “The older guys that were here before me that I had a chance to play with and the younger guys, all a bunch of great guys. I’m going to miss each and every one of them.”