EUGENE -- To breach the rotation in what figures to be one of the Oregon Ducks' deepest positions, a young linebacker certainly could do worse than being what teammates call, with a straight face, "a bit of a wild man."
It would also help, it would seem, to have an athletic lineage that extends from Butler, where a father played linebacker, to Washington State, where a brother played the same spot, to the dugout of the Los Angeles Dodgers, where a distant relative is the manager. And it doesn't hurt to be trained by a Korean taekwondo master, either.
In many ways this fall, it helps to be a player like Danny Mattingly, the redshirt freshman inside linebacker with the long hair and mountain-man beard whose 6-foot-5, 230-pound, tattooed frame is already carrying high expectations. Starting weak side 'backer Derrick Malone, last season's leading tackler, called Mattingly "Kiko Jr.," as in All-Pro NFL and former Duck tackler Kiko Alonso, for his relentless see-ball, smash-ball mindset.
"Last year if he didn't know what he was doing," said fellow linebacker Joe Walker with a grin, "he'd just run and hit someone."
The freshman from Spokane concedes he didn't always know what he was doing as a redshirt, and that his knowledge of the scheme likely kept him on scout team. Regardless of where he played in 2013, however, his instinct for finding the ballcarrier became the stuff of legend because of the mystery surrounding Oregon's closed-door practices, stories of Mattingly's all-out hitting and his shy nature in front of reporters.
Duck coaches, according to his curiously-worded official UO biography, "successfully resisted the temptation to play the true freshman" in 2013.
They won't have to resist in 2014. And just the thought of hitting a real opponent in a live game is enough to make the reticent Mattingly light up.
"It's fun," Mattingly said. "I just like to hit people."
First, the taekwondo master.
It isn't the whole story of Danny Mattingly, Sean Carty cautions over the phone from Spokane, but it is an integral moment in the maturation of a raw player into one so strong and agile that Carty -- the head coach of Mead High School -- occasionally cues up Mattingly's film just for laughs.
In one favorite play, Mattingly catches a pass at tight end and runs upfield with a defender bearing down at a perfect 45-degree angle. Then Mattingly stretched a long arm, "grabbed him by the top of the helmet and almost shook him and threw him down, like Bam-Bam."
"I just watched it the other day," Carty admits, and he laughs as if it say and Mattingly was on offense.
Without the teachings of Jung Kim, who knows whether Oklahoma offers an early scholarship, word leaks out of the Northwest about Mattingly and a flood of schools such as Notre Dame (his one-time verbal commitment), Alabama and Oregon follow suit?
One thing is certain. Though Mattingly is preternaturally gifted with athletic gifts -- coupled with a disregard for his own health on the field, which leads him to barrel into plays as if second nature -- he was "stiff" as a young player, too top heavy from muscle, Carty said.
Kim, the USA national team coach in 1999 and the 1985-86 Korean national champion in taekwondo, coaxed agility from Mattingly's natural power by strengthening his legs to be equal with the upper body he honed as a top baseball prospect, too (Dodgers manager Don Mattingly is a distant cousin).
"He was strong, fast and could jump but was very linear," Carty said. "As far as fluid movement it wasn't that apparent. We dedicated ourselves to say we can't let this guy walk around like Frankenstein.
"... Kim used to come in and stretch on Thursdays. He'd pick on Danny and worked him over and got him stretched out and flexible. He picked on him because he knew he'd be great."
Carty had a similar inkling long before most. He met the Mattingly family in 1997 at Mead, when Chris Mattingly, the oldest of three Mattingly sons and one of nine children, went through the program. In 2005, Andy Mattingly graduated from Mead and soon became a star at Washington State. As a sophomore in 2007, he had 13 tackles against Oregon, including four for loss. Statistically, it remains one of the best defensive performances in Cougar history.
But once Danny learned to juke, cut and move on the football field, the youngest brother became the highest-regarded, with scholarship offers and coaches from big-time programs flooding into Northeast Washington.
He initially chose Notre Dame because, he said in interviews at the time, of his family's Catholic heritage. But by December 2012, he'd de-committed. On January 14, 2013, a Monday, Chip Kelly arrived at Mead on a recruiting trip. Within 48 hours he'd accepted the Philadelphia Eagles' head coaching offer. Mattingly committed the next day.
Before Mattingly can crush an opposing ballcarrier, he'll first have to make a dent in defensive coordinator Don Pellum's rotation.
In the era of spread offenses it's never been more costly to be out of position as a linebacker, and marrying Mattingly's inherent physical gifts with an inside-out knowledge of the playbook is his challenge in order to turn his scout-team exploits into real statistics.
That requires, according to Pellum, a willingness to excel on special teams first. Then, the ability to read how opponents line up, recognize keys and tendencies and process it all in a matter of seconds before taking a step.
"He looks really good and he's close to where we need him to be at this point and not where we need him to be in a week," Pellum said Tuesday. "But right now, I like where he is."
For that matter, so does Mattingly himself.
"I spent a lot of time trying to figure out the defense and I think it's really going to help out a lot in fall camp," said Mattingly on Monday in between bites of lunch. "It's just going to be a lot better and things will really slow down, I think... being in more control of myself and the calls I have to make.
"It took me all season to get comfortable, that's the main reason I redshirted."
His opportunity for playing time opened wide in June when inside linebackers Rahim Cassell and Tyrell Robinson, a classmate and close friend who played nine games as a true freshman, were each dismissed from the team. Robinson's dismissal coincided with Mattingly's maturation in the scheme and has led, by some accounts, to a new player in fall camp.
"I see way more growth," said Malone, who joins Rodney Hardrick as returning second-year starters in UO's 3-4 defense. "Now he can show what he can do because he can play that much faster."
Well, not entirely new.
He's still the linebacker some at UO consider the fastest at getting behind the line of scrimmage and, just maybe, the fastest at leaving an impression this fall, too.