Penn State defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos did his best not to get emotional when speaking to reporters Friday.
He paused, and then laughed before continuing to detail his appreciation for his teammates and the way they’ve embraced him, as well as his decision to declare for the 2020 NFL draft and not return to the Nittany Lions next season.
On paper, Gross-Matos’ decision to forgo his final year of collegiate eligibility might seem like a no-brainer. The 6-foot-5, 265-pound junior has been projected as a potential first-round draft pick for more than a year, and he accounted for 14 tackles for loss and a career-high 8.5 sacks in 11 games this season.
“I had a lot of information, but it still wasn’t an easy decision,” he said. “I love my family here at Penn State, my coaches, all the staff members here and my brothers in my room. So it was really hard to decide I’m not going to be here next year to play with them, but I knew it was the right decision.”
Decision to play in Cotton Bowl was easy: As for whether he’d play in one final game with the Nittany Lions — the Dec. 28 Cotton Bowl against Memphis? Well, that decision was easy. Even while sporting a small brace on his arm Friday, he didn’t hesitate when asked whether he ever considered skipping the bowl.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “I was not going to miss this game. I started the season, I want to finish it.”
Knew for a while he would leave: Gross-Matos has known this season would likely be his last as a Nittany Lion for awhile now. He said the Penn State coaches first began conversations with him about his NFL potential in the summer, when he became draft eligible.
Head coach James Franklin said Friday that he meets with each draft-eligible player and their parents each season to give them data and draft projections collected by scouts and experts to help them make the best decision about their future. For those projected to go in the first round like Gross-Matos, Franklin says he encourages them to leave — both for their own benefit, and for the overall benefit for the program in producing a first-round draft pick.
Part of a "brotherhood:" After first informing his teammates and those closest to him of his plans, Gross-Matos announced his NFL decision publicly — as well as his affirmation to “suit up” one final time in the bowl game — in a social media post on Dec. 3, three days after the regular-season finale vs. Rutgers.
“It means a lot because he could have forgone the game like a lot of people do, but that shows that this brotherhood, that the family we have in the D-line room means the world to him, just for him to suit up one more time with us,” sophomore defensive tackle P.J. Mustipher said. “We really appreciate that because he’s an integral part of what we do on a game-to-game basis. So just having him out there playing with us one more time means a lot.”
Doesn't want to end career with loss: Because Gross-Matos was sidelined with his arm in a sling and didn’t play in that final regular season game against Rutgers, the last game he played for the Nittany Lions was the 28-17 loss to Ohio State. While Gross-Matos played one of his best games of the season in Columbus, with nine total tackles, 3.5 for loss and two sacks, he said he didn’t want to end his Penn State career on a loss.
Despite the risk of injury, Gross-Matos said he’s going to give everything he has in Dallas on Dec. 28 — and play all four quarters if he needs to — to get that win.
“For a bunch of guys, this is going to be the last opportunity to play football at Penn State,” he said. “To us it’s going to be just as important to go out there and make sure the seniors leave on a good note, and everybody not returning.”
He'll be missed: While Gross-Matos’ teammates all support and understand his decision to pursue his NFL dreams, they’re also well aware of the impact his absence will have on the team, both on and off the field next season.
Mustipher described his fellow defensive lineman as a “joyful giant” who’s always wearing his signature Crocs and a smile on his face. Cornerback Trent Gordon said Gross-Matos brings positive energy to the team and “just kind of makes everybody feel good.”
“On the field he’s a game-changer,” Mustipher said. “He changes games, the way he rushes off the edge, he’s a big impact player. At anytime Yetur can take over a game. That’s the kind of player he is and the type of player he’s been throughout his career.”
Will be a key vs. Memphis: Gross-Matos’ defensive presence will be key against a Memphis team playing with a chip on its shoulder, looking to prove it belongs in a New Year’s Six bowl as a Group of 5 team, and looking to give newly minted head coach Ryan Silverfield his first win.
Penn State knows Memphis isn’t a team to be overlooked. And as a thank you for what the program has given him, Gross-Matos wants to make sure the Nittany Lions leave Texas with a win.
“It’s almost like a second family to me,” he said. “I love this place. I’ve been blessed to have the opportunity to come here the past three years to pursue my degree and pay football. So to leave this place is going to be super hard, and I want to end it the right way.”