In the Yale football team’s 4–1 start to the season, much of the spotlight has focused on the upperclassman leaders powering the Elis’ nation-leading offense. But younger players have made an early impact on the defensive side of Yale’s squad. One notable example, linebacker Matthew Oplinger ’18, has been a major contributor as starting linebacker in his freshman campaign. Despite never playing linebacker in high school, Oplinger has been all over the field this season, with two sacks, an interception and even a two-point conversion reception in Saturday’s win over Colgate. The News sat down with the Summit, New Jersey native to discuss his freshman season.
Q: You’ve made a big impact so far in your first year, especially with 11 tackles against Dartmouth and the pick against Cornell. What do you think has allowed you to have this success?
A: We have a strong group of seniors all across the defense who have helped me out, but obviously it starts at linebacker. I could rattle off the whole list of older linebackers who have helped me get to know the defense and things like that. I didn’t play linebacker in high school, so all the guys have really helped me out.
Q: Take us through your interception at Cornell.
A: The [quarterback] dropped back and pump faked, and I was like, alright, he pump faked, he’s probably not going to throw it here. And then he just threw it at me, and I was actually surprised. I went up to catch it, and I bobbled it, and thought I missed it. I went up again looking for it and caught it again, and there was so much green in front of me, but I got tackled from behind.
Q: Then, of course, there was the two-point conversion on Saturday. What was that like, as a linebacker?
A: Unfortunately [tight end] Sebastian Little ’17 got injured, and so I was just stepping in for him. We have all these formations and plays and stuff [for the two-point conversion], but I just never thought they’d run one of them when I was in there. We usually shift back [to kick the field goal], but then we ran it. It felt cool, getting a reception as a linebacker.
Q: You played both tight end and safety in high school. Do you see yourself in an offensive role later on in your Yale career?
A: I have no idea. I have to learn the defense before I can even think about doing something like that. It would kill me if I had to learn the whole offense too. Mentally, school is so much work, and learning the defense is also a lot. The other thing is that we have so many talented guys on offense that it would be difficult to crack into two roster spots when it’s already tough to crack into one.
Q: Did you know coming to Yale that you would play linebacker?
A: They told me I’d play linebacker … We have really, really fast safeties, and those guys need to be really good in coverage. I don’t know if I’d be able to play man on a receiver in college right now. It also helps that I’ve always been taller, and I still have a lot more weight that I can put on.
Q: You were a tri-varsity athlete at the Delbarton School in New Jersey. What’s the biggest difference between being an athlete here at Yale and being one in high school?
A: I would say you’re a lot more humble in college. In high school, you’re usually like a big fish in a small pond. Once you get into college, you see how good everyone else is. That’s definitely a change. Second, you’re a lot closer with your friends. In high school, the kids you play with in each season change. It’s almost like a semi-annual thing, where you hang out with these guys, and then you hang out with these guys. On football, you’re always with football guys. That’s a complete change. You spend so much more time with them, that the relationships are much stronger.
Q: Your brother, Justin Oplinger ’10, was an outside linebacker at Yale a few years ago. What has it been like having him a few years ahead of you with more experience?
A: It’s actually really cool. When I was in middle school, he was in college, so I was living vicariously through him, watching Yale football, being excited about it, and I always wanted to be a Yale football player. Once I got into high school, I stopped worrying about colleges, just worried about my own career. Once I decided to go to Yale, now my brother’s living it through me. I think he’s staying over for one weekend; he’s been at all the games. He loves it. It’s cool to see the roles reversed a little bit.
Q: What are your thoughts on the defense’s performance overall this season?
A: We’ve been okay, but we need to be better. We’ve messed up a few plays here and there because of mental mistakes. I think physically, we’re talented. We’re a little young right now, but I think we’re very good. There are a lot of great leaders on the defense who are helping us get better every week.