Former GVSU standout Matt Judon having early success with Baltimore Ravens
GVL/Kevin Sielaff - Matt Judon (91) awaits his turn to run through weighted dummies during a Baltimore Ravens practice on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016 in Baltimore, Maryland.
BALTIMORE—Matt Judon remembers the undersized kid from West Bloomfield High School.
Where he’s been since then and what he’s done to get where he is now is not lost on him. Judon, standing among future hall of famers, perennial all-stars and up-and-comers just like himself, smiles at the thought of that wiry Michigan kid trying to find his way on the football field.
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He never could have dreamed where that kid would end up.
“You know, you really can’t envision this,” Judon said. “You have what you think it’s going to be, but it’s nothing like that. It’s a lot of work that you don’t see. You expect it, but you don’t know how hard it’s going to be.
“It’s everything and more that I dreamed about.”
The former two-star recruit and Grand Valley State football’s career leader in sacks (34) is making a name for himself in the NFL with the Baltimore Ravens. He was taken in the fifth round in the 2016 NFL Draft this past May, and is quickly becoming a consistent player the Ravens can depend on.
He was the 2016 Division II Player of the Year, the 2016 Gene Upshaw award winner, which honors the top lineman in DII, and led the NCAA—regardless of division—with 21 sacks in his senior season.
Judon, who made a name for himself chasing Division II quarterbacks, has three sacks with the Ravens so far and has seen time in every game this season.
“I saw a young guy who played well, played hard,” said Ravens coach John Harbaugh of Judon after the team’s opening win over the Buffalo Bills Sunday, Sept. 11. “The first 10, 12 plays he was feeling his way a little bit. He didn’t want to make a mistake, I think, and didn’t. Once he got his sea legs, he seemed like he really amped it up and did make some plays and played hard toward the end. That was good to see. He did a nice job.”
The Ravens are 5-5 this season and are in first place in the AFC North, ahead of the Pittsburgh Steelers (5-5), the Cincinnati Bengals (3-6) and the Cleveland Browns (0-11).
Judon has made several plays this season, playing as a defensive end-linebacker hybrid. He does not start, but is used often in the Ravens’ pass-rushing rotation. His breakout game came during a loss to the New York Jets Sunday, Oct. 23.
Midway through the second quarter, Jets quarterback Geno Smith rolled left after being forced out of the pocket. Judon chased Smith down, jumped over his own teammate and brought Smith down for the first sack of his NFL career. Smith tore his ACL on the play, and backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick came into the game.
Later in the fourth quarter, Judon found a wide open lane to Fitzpatrick and recorded his second sack of the day.
“It was the seventh game, and I got all of the nerves out of the way,” Judon said. “It felt good. Not everybody can say they got a sack in the NFL, and I got two in one game. I’m just trying to build on that and hopefully projects me so I can get some more sacks.”
Judon’s performance this season has caught the eye of not just Harbaugh, but his teammates as well.
“He reminds me of myself,” said Terrell Suggs, 2011 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. “(He) shows a lot of promise, a lot of potential. He’s going to be one of the future Ravens.”
Suggs, nicknamed “T-Sizzle,” is one of the greatest players to ever wear a Ravens jersey. He was drafted in the first round by the Ravens in the 2003 NFL Draft out of Arizona State as a linebacker, and was named the Defensive Rookie of the Year in his first season with the team. Along with being named the NFL’s top defender in 2011, he’s a six-time Pro-Bowler and was a key part of the Ravens’ team that won Super Bowl XLVII in 2011. Like Judon at GVSU, Suggs is the Ravens’ all-time leader in sacks (112.5).
Another teammate who Judon has impressed thus far is fellow linebacker-defensive end hybrid Elvis Dumervil. Dumervil is in his fourth season with the Ravens after playing for the Denver Broncos in the first six years of his career. He has 96 career sacks, is a five time Pro-Bowler and was a unanimous All-American at Louisville in his college days.
“(Judon’s) doing great,” Dumervil said. “I think he’s a natural pass rusher. He has all the instincts, great leverage, good power and I think he’s going to be a really good player in this league.”
When asked what Judon needs to do to follow in the footsteps of himself and Suggs, who are both in their 30s and approaching the latter stages of their careers, Dumervil said the rookie needs to keep learning the ways of being a professional.
“Just learn everything, continue to do what he’s doing,” Dumervil said. “He had a two-sack game as a rook, that’s impressive. He’s a good football player, I think the next level for Matt is he needs to condition his body, just being a professional, working his body until he kills himself, just professional things that will help him get the edge,”
Judon appreciated the praise from his teammates—despite the fact he has to remind them where GVSU is from time to time.
“They just never know what school I came from, I’ve got to keep reminding them,” Judon said. “But it’s great, those guys teach me so much. You can learn so much from just watching them and watching film with them, and just keeping an open ear and listening to them.”
In the Ravens’ next game versus the Steelers Sunday, Nov. 6, Judon came up big again. With Pittsburgh down 21-7 late in the fourth quarter, the Steeler offense faced a third down and six just 13 yards away from the end zone. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger dropped back to pass, but was sacked by Judon for a 12-yard loss. The Ravens went on to win the game 21-14.
Against the Browns Thursday, Nov. 10, in front of a national TV audience on Thursday Night Football, Suggs strip-sacked Browns quarterback Josh McCown, and Judon recovered the fumble. The Ravens went on to win 28-10.
Though Judon has been busy terrorizing NFL quarterbacks, he found the time to visit Allendale and attended GVSU’s win over the Findlay Oilers Saturday, Oct. 29.
“Man, that was good,” Judon said. “So many people recognized me. It was good getting back there and seeing them get that W. Right now they’re undefeated, so I don’t think they need me. I still got family there. All those guys on that team are all my brothers. I miss them, but I got a new family here in Baltimore.”
The pass rush has been a huge asset for the 11-0 Lakers, who will play Texas A&M Commerce in the second round of the Division II playoffs Saturday, Nov. 26. The Lakers led the GLIAC this season with 38 sacks thanks to production from players like graduate-transfer Sydney Omameh (10.5 sacks), Dylan Carroll (7) and Alton Voss (4.5).
When asked what he saw in the group of Laker pass rushers, Judon sees potential.
"I still talk to Carroll and Voss a lot," Judon said. "I don’t really know Omameh, but I heard he’s a good pass-rusher.”
Judon also said his former position coach, GVSU defensive line coach EJ Whitlow, still keeps in touch with him.
"I still talk to (Whitlow) as well,” Judon said. “He lets me know when I’m not doing a good enough job in my game, like he knows. It’s a great relationship with the guys back at Grand Valley. Hopefully they win everything.”
GVSU coach Matt Mitchell was the lead man for Judon’s recruitment to GVSU, and described Judon, then a high school senior, as “really undersized at that point in time and hadn’t really played any defensive line.”
Judon got to work, though, and the coaches knew early on they had a special player. Mitchell said he realized they had a special talent in the summer of 2013, but Judon would end up tearing his ACL in the opening game of that season.
It was Judon’s ability to stay mentally strong, rebound and return to form that Mitchell said makes him an NFL-caliber player.
“It’s very unique,” Mitchell said. “We’ve had quite a history in the NFL, people might take it for granted, but it is such a competitive league. For one of our guys to be able not only get there but make plays I think is great. It says a lot about Matt, it also says a lot about our program and how we’re able to develop people, not just players, but people. Matt’s a prime example of the process.”
Judon knows none of what has happened to him up to this point is an accident. He created his own luck with hard work, and he knows he has to do the same as he progresses through his NFL career.
At just 24 years old in his rookie season, Judon has a long way—and a lot of sacks—to go.
“What had to happen was a lot of determination and hard work by me and by lot of people around me,” Judon said of making it to the NFL. “You never really get to these type of points or levels in your life by yourself. Kudos to all of my coaches and my support staff. It was just a lot of hard work and a lot of long nights or early mornings that nobody ever sees. It’s a lot of integrity, holding yourself to a higher standard and believing that you can do this one day.
“You’ve just got to envision yourself being at this level."
Not bad for an undersized kid from West Bloomfield.