Photo by Scott Boldt
Oregon Football

Player Spotlight: Kayvon Thibodeaux

May 21, 2020

Who better to kick off ScoopDuck's new Player Spotlight series than sophomore defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux?

In each entry in this series, I’ll be shining a light on how last season played out for one particular Duck. I'll review their stats and project what fans can expect moving forward.

In his first seven games in an Oregon uniform, ESPN's No. 1 recruit for 2019 racked up 11 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble and 1 pass deflection – not bad numbers for a true freshman being used as a rotational pass rusher. It wasn't until the season's fifth game, October 5 against California, that Thibodeaux started to show just how special he could be.

Thibs was a monster against the Bears, getting after the quarterback like no Duck had for years. He made the most of his 3 tackles, with 2 sacks and 1 forced fumble – not to mention all the times in the second half when he single-handedly caused havoc on play after play.

That game launched Thibodeaux on an incredible stretch run. In his last 6 games, he cemented himself as one of the nation's best pass rushers, regardless of class.

In those games, he recorded 16 tackles, 6.5 sacks and 2 pass deflections. And he was an absolute beast in the postseason.

The Pac-12 title game against Utah and the Rose Bowl against Wisconsin were two of the more dominant performances I’ve ever seen from an Oregon pass rusher. And Thibodeaux's true impact was not adequately reflected in the stat sheet.

My eyes were drawn to No. 5 on almost every snap during the Pac-12 Championship Game, because he was playing another level against a division champion that was ranked fifth nationally. The Utes tried everything in their power to stop him: double teams, sliding guards and running backs over to help, quarterback runs and screens designed to slow the rush.

It simply didn’t matter. He even blocked a punt!

A true speed rusher like Thibs doesn’t come along very often, and it’s even more rare to have that guy choose to play on your team. Even when he's not be racking up tackles, he changes the way the game is played. 

Take the Rose Bowl. Did you know Thibodeaux finished with just 1 solo tackle. Yup, that’s it. No sacks. No fumble caused. No anything really – until you study the film. When you simply pay attention, you can see that he is easily one of the best players on the field.

After trading scores with Wisconsin to start the game in Pasadena, Justin Herbert threw a pretty rough interception. It’s third and 9 for Wisconsin, and a touchdown clearly would swing momentum to the Badgers.

That's when Kayvon comes screaming off the edge on a nice blitz scheme that featured nose tackle Jordon Scott looping around the edge to eat up one of Thibodeaux’s would-be blockers. Thibs applies the heat, but Wisconsin quarterback Jack Coan somehow gets the ball off.

On the stat sheet, it goes down as an incompletion and a quarterback hurry for Thibodeaux. But in reality, he stopped the play from succeeding – and with it, torpedoing a key drive.

According to Pro Football Focus, Thibodeaux is the third-highest-rated returning pass rusher for 2020, trailing only Miami's Quincy Roche and Duke's Chris Rumph II – both of whom are projected as high draft picks in 2021. In fact, in the six years PFF has been tracking collegiate performance, Thibodeaux did something really special last year.

The 6-5, 250-pounder from South Central Los Angeles had the highest Wins Above Replacement value for a true freshman edge rusher since the service started tracking FBS stats. That’s essentially saying that Thibodeaux was the most impactful true freshman in quite some time.

So what’s next for the charismatic Thibodeaux?

To put in perspective just how good his freshman season was, the Oaks Christian grad is already just 20.5 sacks away from breaking the Oregon career record. If his numbers improve only slightly, he’ll beat four-year starter Nick Reed near the end of his junior year.

Thibodeaux seems certain to be an early entrant into the NFL draft. So who has the team record for most sacks in a three-year career?

Back in the early '80s, Steve Baack recorded 19 career sacks in his three seasons with the Ducks before a five-year NFL career with the Detroit Lions; Kayvon might top that mark in TWO years. By the way, the single-season standard is shared by Reed and Ernest Jones, both of whom had 13.

Given that Thibodeaux's snaps were very limited last September, he figures to have an insanely good second season. Scott's decision to return for his senior year and eat up some blockers will certainly help him. And If Mase Funa or another edge pass rusher can step up, defenses would not be able to just key on Thibs.

And that's one sticking point in Thibodeaux's pursuit of individual records: the amount of attention he’s going to get as his reputation grows. Teams are going to try to eliminate him with double teams and special blocking schemes. Oregon defensive coordinator Andy Avalos no doubt is devising ways to make teams pay for doing just that.

Even if Thibodeaux's 2020 numbers aren’t insane, it might not matter. If he’s playing at a high level, the resulting disruption will help the defense out in numerous ways.

I am excited to watch Thibodeaux's growth over the next few seasons. Where will he line up? What will he do next?

Thibodeaux's potential is unlike any defensive player we’ve seen at Oregon, and it’s going to be a thrill to watch that story play out on the field.

Tags: Football, Oregon
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