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Most football teams feature a go-to wide receiver, someone they can throw to when in need of a third-down conversion or a quick chunk of yardage. The squad’s quarterback will depend on this player to be open when he most needs him to be, a safety-net whom the quarterback can rely on to bail him out of trouble.
But when opposing quarterbacks face Harvard, there’s only one problem: they don’t have that option.
That’s because the Crimson secondary contains senior cornerback Matthew Hanson, who for the past four years has been shutting down opposing number one receivers on a weekly basis.
“For me, it’s all about confidence,” says Hanson, who leads the Ancient Eight with 10 pass breakups. “You have to be confident as a corner when you’re chasing a guy around the field.”
Take Cornell’s Kurt Ondash, who was leading the Ivy League in catches and yards when Hanson took him on one-on-one in week five. Though Big Red quaterback Jeff Mathews threw for 322 yards, only 16 of those—on just one reception—went to Ondash, who got lost on what the cornerback likes to call “Hanson Island” (he even has a T-Shirt with the phrase).
Then there’s Brown’s Alex Tounkara-Kone, a preseason first-team All-Ivy pick who recorded seven catches for 149 yards and two touchdowns week one against Stony Brook. But when Tounkara-Kone went up against Hanson seven days later, he finished with just three receptions for 19 yards.
“Every week he gets matched up with the best receiver on the opposing team,” captain Alex Gedeon explains. “And every week he’s covered receivers better than anybody in the league.”
The trend has remained consistent outside the Ancient Eight. For example, Holy Cross’ Gerald Mistretta, Lafayette’s Mark Ross, and Bucknell’s Frank DeNick rank third, fourth, and seventh in the Patriot League with 66.5, 64.0, and 50.8 receiving yards per game, respectively. But against Hanson, those three receivers collected just 44, 41, and 24 yards each.
“When he was a freshman, this is where I thought he would be [now],” Harvard coach Tim Murphy says. “It’s not that he didn’t play well as a sophomore or a junior, but it seems like it all came together this year. Part of it is that he finally realized he’s better than anybody in this league. ... He gives us a dominant player at a very crucial position.”
Hanson was an immediate standout during his freshman season, starting from day one and winning Ivy League Rookie of the Year honors after recording a team-high four interceptions and six pass breakups for Harvard’s championship squad.
“I showed up at camp not expecting much,” Hanson recalls. “It was both cool and scary being thrown into the starting lineup, but I’m really glad it happened. It was a blast playing with those guys freshman year, and I learned a lot from it.”
Before his sophomore season, Hanson was named a preseason All-American, and teams began to avoid his side of the field. He thus didn’t have an interception, but still finished with seven pass breakups and was tabbed as a first-team All-Ivy honoree.
The cornerback followed that performance with a strong junior year, earning second-team All-Ivy honors after recording 41 tackles and seven passes defended with one interception.
But as a senior, Hanson has taken his game to a whole new level, consistently going mano-a-mano with receivers and getting a hand in on nearly every pass thrown his way.
“Matt’s been one of the biggest playmakers on our team,” junior cornerback Brian Owusu says. “Our coaches and players have extreme trust in him.”
Over the past year, the corner’s increased success has been due in part to the fact that he has begun to play more physically and to jam receivers at the line, forcing them to try to beat him.
“[Previously], even when we thought he could play tight man-to-man or tight zone, he was always a little reluctant to do that,” Murphy says. “I’m not sure he bought into the fact of how good he was.”
His coach is even willing to compare him to one of the best cornerbacks in the world.
“He plays out there like a dominator, like a Darrelle Revis relative to the NFL,” Murphy says. “He realizes what he can do, and it’s been kind of a revelation, I think. It’s just been such a huge boost to his confidence level, his leadership level, and his production level. ... He knows anyone he lines up against, he can play against.”
Things haven’t always come this easy for Hanson, who spent most of his pre-college years growing up in a single-parent household.
But despite the challenges that presented, Hanson continued to work hard on and off the field, becoming a multi-sport star in Lafayette, Colo., before arriving in Cambridge.
At Harvard, Hanson has had to manage his pre-med courseload while also picking up everything there is to observe about other teams’ wideouts during football season.
“You’ve got to study up on [receivers] and know them as well as they know themselves,” Hanson explains. “You need to at least have a clue of what he’s doing so you can defend him and be aggressive.”
But while the senior has been as successful at learning his opponents’ tendencies as anyone in the league, he’s also been a great teacher as well.
“He’s been pretty much the leader of our group,” Owusu says. “Just being able to learn from him and all the things he’s done on and off the field has been an inspiration.”
—Staff writer Scott A. Sherman can be reached at email@example.com.
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