LEAVITTSBURG - During the spring, you'd have been hard pressed to not find LaBrae senior Chris Mathews in the weight room at 6 a.m. every day.
Mathews, a big believer in the Vikings' weight-lifting program, had a time conflict in the form of another sport (baseball) that kept him from being able to participate in the offseason program with most of his teammates after school. Therefore, he chose to be at the school before a majority of teachers even arrive for work.
"Every day, I came in before school, I came in and lifted with (my teammates) that were here because I played other sports and tried hitting the weights hard," Mathews said. "It paid off."
That it has, as the 5-foot-10, 175-pound senior is making the move from wide receiver to one of the main running backs for LaBrae after the graduation of last season's leading rusher, Jamal Dawkins. The weight lifting, especially his work at squats (he can now max out at 460 three times), allowed him to increase his speed from a 4.9 40-yard last fall to a 4.6 this summer.
Those improvements helped prove the move is the right decision for LaBrae coach John Armeni.
"We protect who gets the football in our offense, meaning we don't want anybody just getting the football," Armeni said. "You have to earn the right to carry the rock in our offense, and he's earned it. He's someone that we trust and he's someone that will run hard."
Of course, Mathews has already proved himself worthy to the coaching staff on the other side of the ball.
A two-year letterman, Mathews started at outside linebacker last fall for the Vikings, corralling 87 tackles (55 solo), six tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. He managed to get those statistics despite focusing more on pass coverage and not attacking the line of scrimmage.
"Most tackles I had was going across field, following the play behind," Mathews said. "Last year, we didn't blitz a lot, so I kind of had to do my own thing, get to the ball as much as I can in any way possible."
With a unit that is returning every starter from last season, Armeni said the linebackers will have the training wheels taken off and given the ability to blitz a lot more in 2014. For Mathews at outside linebacker, this means he could have an even bigger impact on the defensive side of the ball.
"We're going to try to be a little more aggressive with him," Armeni said. "We're going to make teams block them. We want him to make plays, negative plays, plays for losses - sacks, tackles for losses. So, we're going to cut him loose a little bit more this year, which I think will help our defense."
LaBrae's defense is hoping to have a much better season than in 2013, when the Vikings went 5-5 and allowed 25.3 points per game. Although opponents scored more than 30 points in a game three times, the Vikings also held three opponents to seven points or less.
Armeni said that side of the ball should be much improved, thanks in large part to players like Mathews in the lineup.
"He never says die, never gives up and will even go past the whistle sometimes," Armeni said of Mathews. "He's just a great kid, and if we get 11 of him, you would have something special on defense."