“I trust his decision, so I’m going to go with it. I think it’s my time to go to the next level, see what I can do there. It’s a good thing.”

Mathews said he had been leaning toward staying at Fresno State — attracted by the idea of remaining near friends, playing before a fan base that adores him and completing his degree.

But, as he said he would during the season, Mathews followed Hill’s advice.

“Me and Coach have a great bond,” Mathews said. “If he had told me he wanted me to stay, I would have. …

“But he was the main one last night that really pushed me over the line.”

Mathews signed with Stockton-based Frank Bauer of Sun West Sports & Associates, which also represents Hill.

Hill said he would not try to coax Mathews to stay, though he acknowledged the Bulldogs would be in significantly better shape had the star running back returned.

Mathews set Fresno State’s single-season rushing record this year with 1,808 yards, which currently leads the nation.

Mathews also has 38 career rushing touchdowns, which is another Fresno State record. He ranks second at Fresno State with 3,280 career rushing yards behind Ron Rivers’ 3,479.

“He’s an outstanding young man who has given us great production on and off the field,” Hill said. “That window of opportunity to make a lot of money is very small. I wouldn’t want to stand in a young man’s way of making the kind of money that could change his life. I have no problem with him leaving early.”

Mathews, 22, is not expected to enroll in classes for the spring semester. He did say that he maintained his academic eligibility during the fall semester.

The 5-foot-11, 215-pound Mathews now will turn his attention toward the NFL combine in February and the Pro day workout at Fresno State in March.

Mathews projects as a second-round pick and the fourth-best running back prospect by Todd McShay, the director of college football scouting for ESPN Scouts Inc.

McShay said Mathews’ draft stock likely would not have improved much had he stuck around for a final college season.

“Coming off this year and the production he’s had,” McShay said, “it’s hard to tell a young man to go back to school when you have all this money waiting for you and such a short career in the NFL [for running backs].”

McShay rated Clemson’s C.J. Spiller, Cal’s Jahvid Best and Georgia Tech’s Jonathan Dwyer higher than Mathews.

To which Mathews said, “That’s fine. It’s now my goal to show every team why I should be the No. 1 running back.”

Said McShay: “The more I watch him, the more I like him. For his size, and as hard as he runs, and his burst and agility, he probably has the best combination of running skills.”

Another factor that Mathews said influenced his decision is the possibility the NFL will implement a rookie salary cap.

That potential scenario could entice many underclassmen to opt for the upcoming draft to receive the guaranteed money and avoid making a minimum rookie salary.

Beanie Wells, formerly of Ohio State, was the 31st overall pick and the last running back taken in the first round of the 2009 NFL draft.

Drafted by the Arizona Cardinals, Wells received a $2 million signing bonus and a $790,000 base salary, according to USA Today’s player salary database.

Tight end Richard Quinn, formerly of North Carolina, was the last pick of the second round, the 64th pick overall. He received a $930,000 signing bonus and a base salary of $310,000.

“If there’s a time to go, it’s this year,” Mathews said. “My agent, he’s got a plan, and if we stick with this plan, my grandchildren could be set for life.

“That really stuck with me, just really taking care of my family.”

Trish Mathews said she would have been happy with whatever choice her son made. But she also said Mathews was aware of the risks involved had he stayed.

“I just told him whatever he decided we were with him,” she said. “Everyone told him, this was the thing to do, to go.

“And you know, if opportunity is knocking at your door and you don’t answer it, it could go to the next house and never come back.”

The first round of the NFL draft is April 22, with the second and third rounds April 23 and rounds 4-7 April 24.

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