Jimmie Swain was an afterthought when his senior season at Oregon began.
Kaulana Apelu and A.J. Hotchkins were ahead of Swain on the depth chart before both linebackers suffered season-ending injuries during the first half of the season.
The Ducks even turned to walk-on Blake Rugraff before Swain finally solidified himself as the starter at the inside linebacker spot opposite Troy Dye.
Swain, who earned his first start of the season at Stanford, has averaged 9.3 tackles in his last four games.
“It means a lot,” Swain said of playing an important role in the defense’s turnaround this season under coordinator Jim Leavitt. “There’s a lot of guys that came before that kind of showed me the way at the linebacker position. Just to continue that tradition with the young guys, Troy being such a great player, I think it means a lot.”
Dye, a sophomore, is leading the team in tackles (95) for the second consecutive season.
Against Washington, Leavitt had six true freshmen, a redshirt freshman and a sophomore on the field at the end of the game. Swain came up with a late stop on fourth-and-goal to keep the Huskies from tacking on an extra touchdown in their 38-3 win.
“Jimmie has come out and he’s a kid that always believed in himself,” coach Willie Taggart said of Swain, who had a career-high 13 tackles at Washington. “The thing I’m impressed with, and that I hope our entire team sees, is a kid that never gave up. He kept himself ready for the time when it was his time to get in and help this football team.
“He was determined to do that and it was great to see him come through with that. Earlier in the year, it wasn’t that way for him.”
Swain was among the veteran players who welcomed Leavitt’s 3-4 scheme after the Ducks struggled in Brady Hoke’s 4-3 defense last season.
Defensive lineman Henry Mondeaux, safety Tyree Robinson and cornerback Arrion Springs have also been senior leaders during the transition.
“Here’s another one of our seniors that is committed to getting things right here,” Taggart said of Swain.
Oregon will honor 23 seniors before Saturday’s game against Oregon State at Autzen Stadium (4 p.m. ESPN2).
“You look at the seniors on our defense specifically, those guys have been huge factors for how we’ve done this year as far as just rallying and getting the upswing and trying to get better and better as we go,” Leavitt said.
The Ducks ranked 126th in points (41.4 ppg) and yards (518.4 ypg) allowed per game last season, which ended with a 34-24 loss in Corvallis during which Ryan Nall ran for 155 yards and four touchdowns through the heart of Hoke’s unit.
Oregon is 87th in points allowed (30.5 ppg) and 50th in yards allowed (373.4 ypg) entering the Civil War.
“I think everyone had a sour taste in their mouth about last year, especially on the defensive side of the ball because we felt like we could have done a lot better with the talent we had,” Swain said. “Coming out here and doing what we’ve been able to do this year is good for everybody. And we still want to do better.”