Eleven months ago, Isaac Slade-Matautia played the game of his life. The up-and-coming sophomore inside linebacker posted a career high eight tackles in the Rose Bowl against Wisconsin, helping Oregon top off a memorable season.
Today, Slade-Matautia is no longer the young breakout phenom. Rather, he is expected to be at the helm of the defense in the most trying and bizarre season in college football history.
The departure of fellow linebacker and mentor Troy Dye to the NFL — along with defensive players Thomas Graham Jr., Jevon Holland and Brady Breeze who decided to opt out this season — has created a leadership void that Slade-Matautia must fill.
“Troy Dye left a humongous gap in our defense,” Slade-Matautia said. “You know all the things he did for Oregon, I felt like I had to be the guy to step into that position.”
As far as leadership styles are concerned, Dye and Slade-Matautia take different approaches. Dye was known for his boisterous personality Slade-Matautia is quieter. He lets his work, both on the practice field and during games, do the talking.
Defensive coordinator Andy Avalos had nothing but positive things to say about Slade-Matautia and his role on the defense.
“Isaac’s done a tremendous job,” Avalos said. “ Every single day being effective, helping run the defense from that position. We’re very excited to see his opportunity to play that [leadership] position.”
Slade-Matautia’s unique talents provide a huge boost to Oregon. He is the only returning player in the FBS to record at least 60 tackles and double-digit pass break ups. In 2019 he led the team in pass breakups; he was the first Oregon linebacker to do so since 2009.
Two games into this season, the performance of Slade-Matautia and the defense has been a mixed bag. Against both Stanford and Washington State, there have been times when the secondary has been burned by deep balls, a problem that has been compounded by Oregon’s failure to maintain a consistent pass rush.
Against Washington State, Cougars running back Deon McIntosh ran for 98 yards and a touchdown as he broke Oregon’s arm tackles. This performance is a far cry from the lockdown defense of the 2019 squad.
But when Oregon needed stops, Slade-Matautia and the defense answered. Slade-Matautia remains calm under pressure and takes responsibility for some of the defensive miscommunications that arise.
“Our communications were off from the linebackers to the secondary and the D front,” Slade-Matautia said after the Stanford game on Nov. 7. “We’re going to take it on us, the linebacker group, to get that better and make sure everyone’s on the same page.”
In a role reversal from last year, Slade-Matautia is the established star and freshman Noah Sewell has taken the role of breakout star. Sewell, the younger brother of former Oregon offensive lineman Penei Sewell, has wowed Duck fans with his athleticism and bone-crushing hits.
“I’m just trying to soak it up like a sponge, learning from [Kayvon Thibodeaux], Isaac, all the vets on the defensive side,” Sewell said. “Just talking to them because those guys know how the game goes.”
In a COVID-19-marred college football landscape, having veteran leadership matters more than ever. As Oregon continues to fine tune its defense, expect Slade-Matautia to be leading the charge.