EUGENE — Isaac Slade-Matautia is the only freshman listed as a starter on Oregon’s spring depth chart.
Defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt was tempted to throw the talented inside linebacker into the fray last fall but instead decided to let Slade-Matautia keep his redshirt.
After watching four players get opportunities at the inside linebacker spot opposite Troy Dye in 2017, the 6-foot, 213-pound Slade-Matautia welcomes the opportunity to step into the spotlight.
“I know it’s going to take a lot of responsibility and hard work,” Slade-Matautia said before Friday’s spring practice. “I’ve just got to lead by example. Being one of the younger guys, and having all these older guys around me, I know it’s going to take a big ownership on my part.
“Hopefully it’s something I can own up to to help this team out.”
Slade-Matautia was the No. 2 overall recruiting prospect in Hawaii and the 11th-ranked linebacker nationally in the 2017 class. Even though he wanted to follow in the footsteps of Honolulu legends Marcus Mariota and DeForest Buckner, Oregon did not offer him a scholarship until Willie Taggart was hired in December 2016.
A year later, Taggart headed to Florida State. The silver lining for the defensive players he recruited: Leavitt didn’t leave with him.
“It was hard, because when coach Taggart came here, that’s when I got the offer from Oregon,” said Slade-Matautia, who attended the same high school (Saint Louis) as Mariota. “When I heard coach Leavitt was staying, I had a huge sigh of relief because that was my main reason coming here. He’s a great coach, so I’m glad to have him for however long he stays.”
Slade-Matautia was recruited by most of the Pac-12 programs, including Colorado, where Leavitt orchestrated a dramatic turnaround of the Buffaloes’ defense.
Oregon’s defense gave up 29.0 points and 369.2 yards per game last season under Leavitt after allowing 41.4 points and 518.4 yards in 2016 when Brady Hoke was Mark Helfrich’s defensive coordinator.
During Leavitt’s second season in Boulder, Colorado won the South Division. The Ducks are hoping to get back in contention in the North Division playing in Leavitt’s 3-4 scheme for the second consecutive season.
“I see a lot of improvements, honestly,” defensive end Jalen Jelks said. “This is the first time we’ve had the same defense in a while, so being able to have that is a big step for our improvement.”
Dye, who went from being an outside linebacker in Hoke’s 4-3 to a middle linebacker for Leavitt, led Oregon in tackles for the second consecutive season with 107, including four sacks and 13.5 total tackles for loss.
“We’re not learning anything new, we’re kind of going over stuff, getting guys refreshed,” Dye said. “It’s all the same playbook. We’ve just got to continue to learn it and continue to get better.”
Injuries ravaged the other inside linebacker position last season, with Kaulana Apelu, A.J. Hotchkins and Blake Rugraff all going through the painful revolving door from the field to the training room.
Senior Jimmie Swain finally solidified the spot and finished with 65 tackles, which was second on the team behind Dye.
Now it’s Slade-Matautia’s chance to be Dye’s wingman.
“It’s wonderful,” Slade-Matautia said. “Troy knows everything. He’s a great player, everyone knows that. From his experience just moving to middle ’backer not too long ago, he’s helped me because I didn’t play it before. He tells me everything I need to read, my keys. He’s like another coach.”
Apelu, who started three games before suffering a season-ending injury, is practicing again and listed as Slade-Matautia’s backup. Sophomore Keith Simms, another talented player who has struggled to stay healthy, is running No. 2 behind Dye.
La’Mar Winston and Justin Hollins emerged as standout outside linebackers last season behind the starting defensive line of Austin Faoliu, Jordon Scott and Jelks.
The secondary features a mix of veterans (seniors Ugochukwu Amadi and Mattrell McGraw) and underclassmen (sophomore cornerbacks Thomas Graham and Deommodore Lenoir) atop the depth chart.
“We’ve got to treat this as an organizational chart and not a depth chart,” coach Mario Cristobal said. “We’ve got to figure out who can do what so we can really kind of build our identity from the inside out.”
Slade-Matautia told the coaches he could play as a true freshman if they needed him to, but he’s more prepared to be effective after sitting out.
“It’s still a struggle getting all the concepts down, but redshirting last year helped me a lot learning from the older guys,” Slade-Matautia said. “The coaches were thinking about burning it, coach Leavitt wanted to, but at the same time he really didn’t because it was halfway through the season.”
Redshirt freshman Popo Aumavae (nose guard), true freshmen Verone McKinley (cornerback) and Steve Stephens (safety) and transfers D.J. Johnson (outside linebacker) and Haki Woods (cornerback) are also listed on Oregon’s two-deep.
The Ducks expect to see a marked improvement on defense as soon as Leavitt gets all of the new pieces on the same page with the experienced players.
“I noticed when I was in high school that he took Colorado’s defense to a higher standard, and he’s done that here as well,” Slade-Matautia said. “There’s just one way we’re going, and that’s up. With coach Leavitt, it’s going to be easier to do it.”