Oregon Duck x-factor Isaac Slade-Matautia is emulating Marcus Mariota

Oregon Duck x-factor Isaac Slade-Matautia is emulating Marcus Mariota

A lot has happened in a year for Oregon inside linebacker Isaac Slade-Matautia. He experienced his first live college football game, broke his collarbone to halt his strong freshman season, rehabbed and added almost 20 pounds.

Now, the healthy and respected MIKE linebacker is majorly contributing and the front-runner to start alongside senior Troy Dye. Slade-Matautia could be Oregon’s x-factor, yet he’s flying relatively under the radar… And he likes it that way.

A former four-star prospect and a top two player from the state of Hawaii, Slade-Matautia attended St. Louis High School, the same school quarterback Marcus Mariota attended. The two have clear similarities in their soft-spoken nature and intense work ethic; Slade-Matautia emulates the Heisman Trophy winner and aims to follow in Mariota’s footsteps.

“I talk to his brother (Matt Mariota) a lot,” Slade-Matautia said. “I ask his brother, ‘What did Marcus Mariota do when he was in college? Did he go out? Did he have social media?’ The answers are no… I want to do what he did and hopefully get the same result.”

[READ: Mykael Wright: "Silent assassin" true freshman pushing Oregon's secondary]

No Instagram, Twitter, Facebook or burner accounts for 6-foot-1 235-pound linebacker, just like Mariota. The sophomore stays in, studies film, arrives early to practice, leads by example and demands the most from his teammates in a positive way. He’s earned the respect from his teammates by his calm command of the defense. Oregon senior offensive lineman Shane Lemiuex picked Slade-Matautia as ‘Best in Fall Camp’.

“He’s quiet but has become a very vocal guy on the defense and a great pass rusher,” Lemieux said. “He’s not afraid to come down the A-gap and smack someone.”

With Kaulana Apelu’s departure, the starting role is Slade-Matautia’s to take. Lack of size was a slight on Slade-Matautia last season. Not only does he feel more comfortable at 235 pounds, it’ll help with the adjustment for more reps and he has been able to maintain his speed.

His accountability helps the Ducks trust him to make the calls on the field, set the front and get the coverage correct.

“I think he runs the defense really well, he has good control, guys trust him,” Dye said. “We all buy into backing him and believing in him… I know he’s going to have a breakout year this year.”

In Oregon’s latest scrimmage, Slade-Matautia made an impressive interception that displayed his knack for running to the ball and showcasing his strong hands.

“It was a man-to-man coverage. The ball came my way and I was there to jump the route,” Slade-Matautia said. “Knowing everything I was able to overcome, being injured and all that, getting that pick helped other players be confident in my plays.”

Slot wide receiver Jaylon Redd said he’s always aware of the physical presence of Slade-Matautia has in practice.

“You always gotta keep your eye on him,” Redd said. “He might catch you slipping a little bit. He’s focused, a quiet guy. He knows what he is doing.”

Last season, Slade-Matautia saw action in seven games before missing the last six games due to injury. He made 20 tackles, including 13 solo and two for loss.

Fair warning for Pac-12 offenses, it is Slade-Matautia's season and he’s looking to take advantage of slip-ups.

Which Duck linebackers will wreak havoc? The locks, contenders and longshots

Which Duck linebackers will wreak havoc? The locks, contenders and longshots

The Ducks know they have two stars at linebacker in junior Troy Dye and senior Justin Hollins. With the emergence of La’Mar Winston Jr., this position unit could be the strongest on the team.

LOCKS

Troy Dye, junior, inside linebacker: Oregon's defensive MVP for the 2017 season has generated major NFL draft buzz and has landed on three major watch lists; the Bednarik Award (nation’s top defensive player), the Butkus award (nation’s best linebacker) and the Nagurski award (nation’s best defensive player).

In his two seasons, the preseason All-American has 198 tackles with 118 solo tackles, 80 assisted tackles and 9.5 sacks.

Justin Hollins, senior, outside linebacker: The Butkus award nominee is heading into his fifth year at Oregon as the only Duck to have played on the unit that helped get Oregon into the inaugural College Football Playoff championship game in 2014.

Last season he forced three fumbles and finished third on the team in tackles for loss (11.5) behind defensive end Jalen Jelks (15) and linebacker Troy Dye (13.5).

La’Mar Winston Jr., junior, outside linebacker: The Len Casanova Award for leadership winner (voted on by his teammates) played in all 13 games for the Ducks in 2017, including seven starts. Five of those starts came over the final six games when he delivered 31 tackles with five for loss. He finished the season with 49 tackles, eight tackles for loss and two sacks. 

[WATCH: A SUMMER IN PARIS WITH LA'MAR WINSTON JR.]

"(La'Mar)'s put on weight and strength," Dye said. "Seeing his transition from our freshmen year until now is phenonemal."

CONTENDERS

Kaulana Apelu, senior, inside linebacker; The walk-on was placed on scholarship before the start of 2017 season. He played in five games and made three starts, totaling 20 tackles, including three for loss before suffering a season-ending injury. Apelu rehabbed and returned to the field in time for spring practice. In the spring game, he led the Ducks’ defense with nine tackles and returned a tipped pass 100 yards for a touchdown.

Isaac Slade-Matautia, redshirt freshman, inside linebacker: Last season Slade-Matautia utilized his redshirt. ESPN and Rivals ranked the four-star prospect a top two player from the state of Hawaii. He is competing to be in the mix for starting alongside Dye.

"(Isaac)'s a beast," Dye said. "He's going to surprise a lot of people. There are a lot of things that he has taught me."

Adrian Jackson, freshman, inside linebacker: A consensus four-star prospect and the state of Colorado's top player in 2017. Dye called Jackson a "phenomenal beast" a few days into fall camp. Jackson currently backs up Dye at the JACK linebacker position, but says he’d be willing to move to MIKE.

[READ: How the new redshirt rule helps Oregon]

Keith Simms, sophomore, outside linebacker: Suffered a season-ending injury last season. Played both inside and outside throughout spring practices and totaled 8 tackles and a sack during UO’s spring game. Simms could add quality depth if he can stay healthy.

LONGSHOTS

Sampson Niu, sophomore, inside linebacker: In 2017, Niu played in six games and finished with eight tackles and one tackle for loss. He missed spring drills while rehabbing an injury suffered in the Las Vegas Bowl. Four-star prospect and the top inside linebacker in the state of California by Rivals and 247Sports.

MJ Cunningham, true freshman, inside linebacker: A consensus three-star prospect by ESPN, Rivals and 247Sports. The Portland-native is another freshman that could crack the rotation.

Who will Herbert sling the ball to? The Locks, Contenders and Longshots at receiver

How Oregon's recruits fit in: LBs - Tough competition ahead

How Oregon's recruits fit in: LBs - Tough competition ahead

Oregon coach Willie Taggart last week signed his first recruiting class, which Rivals.com ranked No. 18 in the nation. Now CSN is taking a look at how each new recruit could fit into the Ducks' plans next season.

Other entries: QuarterbacksRunning backsWide receivers/tight endsOffensive line, Defensive line, Defensive backs.

Today: Linebackers.

New Ducks: Inside linebackers Sampson Niu (6-1, 217, Madison, H.S., San Diego, Calif.) and Isaac Slade-Matautia (6-1, 206, St. Louis High School, Honolulu, Hawaii), and athlete Cyrus Habibi-Likio (6-1, 211, St. Francis H.S., Mountain View, Calif.). 

Projected starters (3-4 defense): Outside linebacker Troy Dye, Soph., (6-4, 225), inside linebacker A.J. Hotchkins Sr., (5-11, 230), inside linebacker Jimmie Swain, Sr., (6-2, 235) and outside linebacker La'Mar Winston Jr., Soph., (6-3, 220).

Key backups: Inside linebackers - Danny Mattingly, RSr., (6-5, 245) and Keith Simms, Soph., (6-3, 235). Outside linebackers - Eric Briscoe, RFr., (6-3, 225), Justin Hollins, RJr., (6-6, 235) and Kaulana Apelu, Jr., (5-11, 200).

The situation: Oregon has plenty of young talent to work with here. Dye is a star. Simms and Winston were 4-star recruits in 2016. Hollins could be an interesting option if he moves to linebacker from defensive end. 

Only Dye is untouchable in the starting lineup with Swain and Hotchkins as the front-runners to start inside. However, they will have to fend off Simms and two very talented inside linebackers, four star recruits Niu and Slade-Matautia. 

Niu, ranked by Rivals.com as the No. 12 inside linebacker in the nation, has a chance to play right away assuming he adds some weight. Playing inside at 217 pounds likely won't cut it.  Slade-Matautia was rated No. 11 in the nation. He is listed at 206 pounds and must add bulk. 

If they live up to their billing, Niu and Slade-Matautia could have an impact in 2017. But that's a big if. 

There's reason to believe that the young outside linebackers, Winston and Briscoe, will take the next step and compete for playing time. They will be joined in that race by Habibi-Likio should he start off his career at linebacker. He could play safety, or even running back.  

The verdict: This competition should be wild. Oregon has seven linebackers that are freshmen or sophomores. Something has to give. On the inside, Swain came on strong late last year but Hotchkins was wildly inconsistent. Expect at least one of the two freshmen inside linebackers to play in 2017. Habibi-Likio might have a tougher battle in front of him on the outside because of the potential of Briscoe and Winston. But only Dye has established himself there. In other words, who truly knows what's going to happen? This could be the Ducks' most interesting position group to watch. 

Next up: Defensive backs