When Matt Breida first began to taste success at Georgia Southern as a sophomore, there was a great deal of talk about how nice it was to have a local Hernando County athlete make good in major college football.
After another big season in his junior campaign, Breida has vaulted himself into the conversation for some of the biggest awards the sport has to offer and opens up options concerning his potential professional future. But his mind continues to be set on the short term. It is one of the keys to his success so far.
"If the NFL comes calling after this season is over, it would be great. It's always been a dream," Breida said. "Right now, I'm just focused on finishing out my college career strong and getting my degree."
Breida enters his senior season as the lead running back in a ground-based offensive attack at Georgia Southern. His predecessor, Jerick McKinnon, played with the Eagles while they were still in the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly I-AA) and has gone on to be a contributor for the Minnesota Vikings.
McKinnon's success opened some eyes about the quality of talent at Georgia Southern, and with the Eagles moving into a Division I-A bowl-eligible conference (the Sun Belt), Breida has put together some amazing performances against much more difficult competition.
"I learned a lot from Jerick when he was here (Breida's freshman season)," Breida said. "He taught me a lot on the field. I think people see the kind of athletes that Georgia Southern produces, and that should give us some opportunities."
In his two seasons as a starter, Breida has been named first-team all-Sun Belt Conference by both the conference and renowned college football writer Phil Steele. He was a Doak Walker Award semifinalist as the nation's top college running back in his sophomore season.
After rushing for 1,485 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2014, he followed up in 2015 with 1,608 yards and another 17 scores. With 3,108 yards in his three seasons with the Eagles, Breida is already on the cusp of surpassing his high school totals at Nature Coast, where he rushed for 3,170 yards and 37 touchdowns in his prep career.
With his current career mark of 8.3 yards per carry, Breida actually would hold the highest such mark of any running back in college football history, surpassing the long-standing record held by former Army star Glenn Davis, who rushed for 8.26 yards per carry for the Knights from 1943-46.
"Hearing my name along with some of the best to play the game, it's unbelievable," Breida said. "To be ranked among those guys, I have to give a lot of credit to the rest of my team and the great group of coaches."
It's a far cry from the little kid who took the field for the West Hernando Cougars at Delta Woods Park in Spring Hill. His drive and determination led him through middle school, high school, and now onto the large stage. In Georgia Southern's first bowl appearance in December, he ran for 68 yards on 15 carries with a touchdown — in front of a national television audience — despite being limited with an ankle injury.
"It really was difficult for me," Breida said. "I wasn't sure how much I'd be able to contribute all the way up until game time, but I wanted to go out there for the team."
At 5-foot-9 and only 190 pounds, he is undersized compared with most professional tailbacks. He has outpaced many of the top prospects in the country, however, in terms of work ethic, elusiveness and big-play ability.
Breida will have even more eyes on him this fall, his final season with the Eagles. His explosiveness makes him a highlight editor's dream. And he might make his way onto more than a few NFL draft boards before next spring.
"My personal goals are to stay consistent," he said. "I don't like to set yardage or touchdown goals, but I always want to do better game by game. I need to continue to be that player that can help out the team, and the rest will take care of itself."