EUGENE — Thomas Graham knows his strength.
“One of the keys to success my whole life, no matter what sport, I was always more technical,” the UO junior cornerback said. “I am not always more athletic, but more technical and smarter than others so that is how I got my success.”
Graham’s talent got him on the field for 12 starts as a true freshman. Late in his sophomore season, Graham started to feel more mentally prepared after working with cornerbacks coach Donte Williams.
“He helped me to use my mind,” Graham said. “Donte was able to show me how to use my mind in the way I should when it comes to breaking down opponents’ film to be able to make plays and play faster than I did before.”
Graham’s class schedule last fall allowed him time for extra film study at the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex each Monday, Wednesday and Thursday.
“I always try to write stuff down so that things I don’t remember at first, I keep reminding myself weekly,” Graham added.
The 5-foot-11, 197-pound Graham is “bigger, stronger and faster than I’ve ever been” as he looks to extend his streak of 25 consecutive starts.
Graham, who was a second-team selection on the preseason all-Pac-12 team, and Deommodore Lenoir give Oregon a pair of veteran corners without much experience behind them.
“I am trying to lead the young bucks, give them something I have,” he said.
True freshman Mykael Wright has been praised by multiple players and coaches in fall camp as Graham’s backup.
“He’s doing amazing, he’s been able to adjust fast,” Graham said of Wright, who arrived in the middle of spring practice. “He’s quiet, they call him ‘Kawhi,’ he’s a silent killer. Kawhi (Leonard) will give you 30 and you don’t even know it. Mykael will shut down your best receiver and you won’t even realize it until you look at the end of the game and he has no catches.”
Freshman DJ James has emerged as Lenoir’s backup, and Daewood Davis is in his second season after switching from wide receiver.
“Everybody in the room is doing what they have to do,” Graham said. “It will allow them to get quality game reps but also allows us to be able to look at the opponents from the sideline because that helps too.”
Meanwhile, Isaac Slade-Matautia is finding his voice on Oregon’s defense.
The admittedly soft-spoken redshirt sophomore is projected to be a starter at linebacker for the Ducks, lining up next to four-year starter Troy Dye.
“Isaac has stepped into a big role this year, the Mike linebacker so he runs the defense basically,” Dye said. “He’s making all the calls, all the checks and doing a great job with it.”
New defensive coordinator Andy Avalos’ system has forced Slade-Matautia to get comfortable speaking up.
“Coach is telling me every day to be a leader,” he said. “I’m not a very vocal guy, I like to lead by example. I go out there and get the young guys going, telling them what to do. ... As the days go on I get more confident with that as we get to know each other more.”
Slade-Matautia had 20 tackles in the first seven games last year while playing behind Kaulana Apelu before missing the final six games due to a shoulder injury.
“He understands the defense and is picking right up where Lana left off,” Dye said. “He’s going to have a real breakout season this year. I’m excited because he’s going to surprise a lot of people.”
Slade-Matautia, who attended St. Louis School in Honolulu, Hawaii that also sent Marcus Mariota to Oregon, arrived at fall camp listed at 235 pounds.
“That’s almost 20 more than a year ago and you can feel it in the way he is throwing his body around and some people around,” coach Mario Cristobal said. “He has been really good since the spring through the summer to now. His productivity is through the roof so we are real fired up about him.”
Slade-Matautia worked to maintain his speed while putting on pounds.
“I feel more comfortable in my play,” he said. “Last year, I was on the lighter side being a linebacker but right now its about maintaining it throughout the season and staying healthy.”
The Mike linebacker requires versatility to rush the passer, stop the run and drop back in coverage.
“Isaac is a tough guy and toughness to us means always being here early, doing the right things, making sure you are doing things the way they are taught and demanding the most of others in a positive way,” Cristobal said. “Doing the right things all the time is being a tough guy and that’s what he does at a high level.”
His teammates have noticed that for the past two seasons.
“People are finally realizing the stuff we already saw,” said Graham, who arrived in the same recruiting class as Slade-Matautia. “Isaac came in as a baller and got better each day. Now he finally has a true opportunity to take advantage of it. I feel like this year is his time.”