The course of Matthew Dash’s football career has been anything but conventional.
The safety has gone from the East Coast to the West Coast, made a stop in junior college and watched national signing day pass him by this year with no destination in sight.
Through it all, Dash maintained focus on his goal to find a school where he could make an impact on the major-college level.
After just a week of fall camp, Dash appears tantalizingly close to getting there at North Texas.
UNT signed the former Los Angeles Pierce College standout in May, months after national signing day, and has seen him quickly make an impression on coaches and teammates. Dash quickly picked up coordinator John Skladany’s scheme and is competing with Sheldon Wade for a starting job at free safety, where UNT must replace All-Conference USA selection Marcus Trice.
“I’m definitely happy with my decision,” Dash said of signing with UNT. “It couldn’t have turned out better. There is a lot of competition here that has made me better.”
Improving the level of competition in UNT’s secondary was the reason the Mean Green signed Dash in the first place after searching far and wide for a late JUCO addition at safety.
UNT has three of its four starters in its secondary returning, but saw its depth chart take a hit when backup safety Zed Evans was forced to give up football in the offseason due to a bad back. Fellow safety Freddie Warner has battled injury problems throughout his career and has missed time in practice this fall.
UNT had a safety it felt good about pairing with returning starter Lairamie Lee in Austin Peay transfer Wade coming out of spring practice, but was far from comfortable with its depth chart at the position.
Dash’s arrival has changed that.
Wade and Dash are battling for the starting job heading into UNT’s season opener on Aug. 30 at Texas. UNT coach Dan McCarney said Monday that both will play against the Longhorns.
Having Wade and Dash at his disposal is a comforting feeling for McCarney and his staff, considering the precarious situation UNT might have faced had it not found another safety at the last minute.
“I like him a lot,” McCarney said of Dash. “He’s learning. With the intricacies of college football with all the calls, looks, personnel and the way offenses jump around, it isn’t easy to play safety now. We expect a lot, not only physically but mentally as well from our safeties. He’s going to be really good.”
Dash’s new teammates have been impressed with his performance. Senior cornerback James Jones said that Dash struggled a bit in the first couple of days of practice to pick everything up, but has improved rapidly since and is making play after play in practice.
Dash also is starting to find a comfort zone with his teammates.
“He’s eager to learn,” Jones said. “He’s quiet like Lairamie and barely says anything, but he’s disciplined, makes plays and isn’t afraid to ask questions.”
Dash had several questions for UNT’s staff after cornerbacks coach LaMarcus Hicks contacted him a few months ago to see where he stood in the recruiting process. Dash was a first-team selection on the Southern California Football Association All-Pacific Conference team last season, when he ranked second on his team with 45 tackles to go along with two sacks and an interception.
Eastern Michigan was recruiting Dash and hosted him on an official visit before Hicks convinced him to visit UNT. Jones, who also began his career in junior college before transferring to UNT, hosted Dash and helped sell him on the idea of playing for the Mean Green.
“I was thinking about going to Eastern Michigan and just came off a visit there,” Dash said. “I decided this was a better fit after talking to coach McCarney.”
Dash quickly signed on with the Mean Green and went to work trying to capitalize on the talent he first showed when he was a star quarterback at Willingboro High School in New Jersey. He threw for nearly 1,000 yards as a senior and intercepted 12 passes while playing defensive back as a junior.
The first detour in Dash’s journey to playing on the major-college level came when he failed to qualify academically out of high school.
“I was looking for a junior college that turned out top Division I players,” Dash said. “I had a coach with connections at Pierce who told me that if I wanted to play Division I football that it would be a good place for me.”
Dash quickly rose to prominence at Pierce and caught the attention of UNT’s coaches.
Dash was on his way to UNT a short time later to fulfill the dream he began chasing in high school in New Jersey and continued to pursue in California before finally landing at UNT.
If he continues to play well over the next few weeks, Dash could start when the Mean Green opens its season at Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, one of the historic venues in college football, where 100,000 fans will pack the stands.
It’s a long way from New Jersey, where Dash started his journey with a simple goal to play on the major-college level. That goal is now in sight.
Dash said he isn’t concerned with whether or not he will start against Texas.
“I just want to learn and continue to grow as a player,” Dash said.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.