Tight ends coach Kevin Wright felt the Indiana offense wasn’t executing in preparation for its game against Maryland on Oct. 30. The Hoosiers practiced a set of plays where senior tight end Matt Bjorson stayed in pass protection, but something wasn’t right.
Wright knew it wasn’t Bjorson’s fault — he nicknamed the senior tight end “Mr. Dependable” for a reason. Wright attempted to mix in another player to give Bjorson a rest, but that’s not in Bjorson’s DNA.
“I’m in,” Bjorson said.
As Indiana worked to solve its offensive struggles, Wright tried three more times to give Bjorson a breather, but was met with the same response.
“I’m in,” Bjorson repeated.
Bjorson’s refusal to take a play off reveals his meticulous attention to detail and work ethic that have been instrumental throughout Indiana’s locker room.
During the 2020 season, Bjorson earned Indiana’s Ted Verlihay “Mental Attitude” Award, and in his fourth season as a Hoosier, Bjorson is what Wright called “the quarterback of the punt team.” Wright’s first impression of Bjorson was a player who’s always locked in, and after coaching him for two seasons, Wright now calls Bjorson “Mr. Blue Collar.”
“He doesn’t say a lot,” Wright said. “He’s one of those guys that always has a smile on his face and a pencil in his hand.”
Matt Bjorson started watching film when he was eight years old.
That was the standard Bjorson’s coach — Dr. David Marco, who believed in “the West Point way” and coached second graders like a drill sergeant — set for his players at an early age.
In addition to twice-a-week film sessions, the elementary schoolers were expected to memorize plays, analyze their tackling form and critique the way they stepped and used their hands when blocking. After each game, Marco gave out player grades and named the game’s top player at each position.
“[Matt] couldn’t watch enough film,” Matt’s father Kris Bjorson said. “And he couldn’t practice enough and that’s eight years old … It was all-consuming to him to watch and get really technical.”
However ridiculous Kris — a former team captain for the University of Cincinnati football team — thought these requirements were for eight year olds, it paid off. Matt’s team went undefeated on its way to the Super Bowl, and his love and competitive drive toward football was formed.
That season sparked dreams of playing in the Big Ten or SEC one day, and the first school Matt latched onto was Ohio State. The Christmas after Matt’s first Super Bowl run, Kris gifted his son a full Ohio State football uniform and enough scarlet and gray to cover the walls of his room. Although Kris was a Bearcat in his playing days, he said Matt always wanted to play at a school bigger than Cincinnati.
So for the following years leading up to Matt’s high school career at Hinsdale South, the father-son duo joined forces in pursuit of Matt’s dreams. To simplify the Bjorson household and Kris’ coaching responsibilities, Matt teamed up with his older brother Nick.
And Matt played no small role against teams with kids two and three years older. Matt cracked skulls at fullback and middle linebacker with Nick lining up at wide receiver. From day one, Matt was the one to set the tone on the field.
“[Matt] was always the most physical kid on the field,” Kris said. “He was always the one to do what he had to do to create a physical environment for the team.”
Stemming from his high school days in Youngstown, Ohio and his college career at Cincinnati, Kris preached a whistle-to-whistle mentality when coaching Matt and Nick. Kris said he was taught to play every snap like it was his last and that he believes there’s really no other way to play football.
Matt exemplified that style of play when he was in sixth grade, playing against eighth graders. Hinsdale reached the Super Bowl of the Bill George Youth Football League with a 9-1 record, but faced a tough challenge against Lombard — the only team to beat the Bjorson-led squad in the regular season.
Powered by the younger but mighty Matt, Hinsdale avenged its loss to become Super Bowl champions. Kris considers this his and Matt’s best youth football memory, and one that shaped who Matt would eventually become as a player.
“[Matt] invented the word ‘pancake,’” Kris said.
After a hard-hitting youth football career at fullback and middle linebacker, Matt Bjorson developed into one of Illinois’ top high school football players. As a senior at Hinsdale South High School, Bjorson was named to the 2017 all-state team and West Suburban Silver Offensive Player of the Year for his play at tight end and defensive end.
He made 25 catches for 411 yards and eight touchdowns as a senior en route to being ranked the No. 21 hybrid tight end nationally and the No. 18 prospect in Illinois by ESPN. This led to offers from Indiana, a slew of MAC schools and the University of Kentucky, but ultimately, Bjorson chose Indiana because he saw traits of himself — and his father — in Tom Allen.
“You want them to be around someone who is faith-based, who is goal-driven and who has things beyond the game that they’re communicating with the kids,” Kris Bjorson said. “So I thought that was a great fit for Matt.”
And in a bigger sense, Bjorson felt his belief in hard work and toughness was common throughout the Indiana players and coaching staff.
“[At Indiana] it’s not like, ‘Oh, you’re a 5-star, you get what you want,’” Bjorson said. “Allen’s mentality really brought me here to see a fire and passion for the sport.”
Bjorson hauled in his first career touchdown as a sophomore in what Allen called a “breakthrough” win for Indiana at Nebraska on Oct. 26, 2019.
Throughout his four seasons as a Hoosier, Bjorson has served a multi-purpose role, both as a tight end and a leader on special teams. Although Indiana fell to Michigan 29-7 on Nov. 6, the experienced Bjorson helped true freshman quarterback Donaven McCulley settle in under the bright lights of The Big House.
On the opening drive of the game, Indiana faced third down and five at its own 40-yard line. Bjorson paced six yards down the field and ran a quick hitch route, positioning himself just past the first-down marker. McCulley’s quick release connected with Bjorson for an Indiana first down just before converging defenders sandwiched Bjorson.
“He has such great flexibility within the offense,” Wright said. “He’s a guy that can block and he’s an underrated receiver.”
Bjorson complements Indiana’s second-leading receiver Peyton Hendershot to create a versatile duo at tight end, but Bjorson’s physical presence is perhaps most evident on special teams. Wright called Bjorson the “quarterback of the punt team,” but Bjorson also takes on a leadership role in nearly every aspect of Indiana’s special teams.
Bjorson said he takes pride in special teams because it can help set up both the offense and the defense. Bjorson understood special teams from an early age, as his father Kris also ran the punt team at Cincinnati.
“Special teams carries a lot of momentum and energy,” Kris said. “I think it certainly decides games.”
During Indiana’s 56-14 win over Idaho on Sept. 11, Bjorson’s energy was on display.
As the first-half clock ticked away against Idaho, D.J. Matthews caught a punt over his shoulder while running in the opposite direction. As Matthews circled around, Bjorson and fellow Hoosiers formed a wall for Matthews. Bjorson sealed the sideline with a crucial block, allowing Matthews to fly past the Idaho bench before using a stiff arm to cut back to the middle of the field and glide into the end zone.
“It was a huge breakthrough for us on special teams,” Bjorson said. “Stuff like that makes people want to try more, want to give more effort to see how much of an impact it can make.”
Bjorson said his responsibility on special teams is to make sure everything is secure and running smoothly in order to provide Indiana with a winning edge. Indiana special teams coordinator Kasey Teegardin said setting the tone is crucial because the first play of every game is run by the special teams.
“All it takes is one play because I do believe one play can spark,” Teegardin said. “You can see the impact.”
Peyton Hendershot said the tight end position was the worst position on the team during his first season at Indiana. He and Bjorson committed to not only changing that, but making it one of the best.
Bjorson and Hendershot first did this by working to create more opportunities for tight ends within the offense. Whether it be developing their threat as red-zone targets, runners after the catch and run or pass blockers, Hendershot feels they have reversed the narrative regarding Indiana tight ends.
“I’m super happy and super proud that me and him got to create that legacy here that the tight end position is going to be the best position on the team,” Hendershot said.
But the duo won’t let that stop after 2021 — even with the possibility that neither is on Indiana’s roster next season. Due to experience and leadership, Wright uses Bjorson and Hendershot as an extension of the coaching staff.
Wright allows Bjorson and Hendershot to break into collaborative groups with Indiana’s younger tight ends to analyze film without coaches present. Bjorson has embraced this leadership role by trying to set a higher standard for the tight end room.
“When you have two players who can do something like that, it’s really beneficial to help people and bring them along,” Bjorson said.
Since committing to Indiana in June 2017, Bjorson has appeared in all 41 games — a rare feat for any college athlete.
Bjorson has been there for the ups and downs of Indiana football. He was there for the ascent to a top-10 national ranking and two straight bowl game appearances. And he’s here for what can be characterized in no other way than a disappointing 2021 campaign that started with Indiana at No. 17 in the country and currently stands with a 2-8 record.
But through it all, Bjorson has told himself that “you can’t ever give up until you have nothing left to give.” Hendershot said Bjorson surprised everyone when he arrived in Bloomington and saw the field from day one.
Hendershot described Bjorson as stable, steady and always ready to work. This was an area in which Hendershot admittedly lagged early in his career, but being around Bjorson everyday quickly changed that.
“A couple years ago, I was one of those guys like, ‘I’m ready for the season to be over with,’” Hendershot said. “[Bjorson] helped me be consistent and more focused and all of that, and I can’t thank Matt enough.”
Although Indiana’s 2021 campaign isn’t going as planned, Bjorson has helped keep Hendershot locked in through the final weeks of the season.
Hendershot arrived in Bloomington one year prior to Bjorson, but said it feels like they have spent their whole careers together. Hendershot said he no longer calls Bjorson a friend, but a brother, because of the way he exemplifies Allen’s culture.
“He’s the best teammate anyone could ever ask for,” Hendershot said. “Matt Bjorson is the best guy ever and we’re so honored and blessed to have him on our team.”