HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — He’s handsome, he oozes charisma and he might be the best player in college football. Is there anything Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux can’t do?
“He can’t shoot,” Boise State head coach Andy Avalos, Thibodeaux’s defensive coordinator the previous two seasons, joked.
At a conservatively listed 6-foot-5 with a lean, chiseled physique, Thibodeaux looks like he could lock down the paint on Dana Altman’s Oregon basketball team. But while Avalos says Thibodeaux “looks like a hooper,” his jump shot might be a liability.
Good thing, then, the Ducks defensive end dedicates himself to football. On the gridiron, Thibodeaux shows no deficiency to his game. His combination of length, quickness, raw power and dexterity may intimidate opponents, and certainly has pro scouts salivating.
Put simply: “He’s probably the top edge player in next year’s [NFL] draft,” Avalos said.
The physical attributes and the skills have been well-established for years, dating back to prep powerhouse Oaks Christian in Southern California. For those unaware of his 5-star status coming out of high school, a Freshman All-America season in 2019 that included a difference-making performance in the Pac-12 Championship Game presumably opened more eyes.
As a potential No. 1 overall NFL draft pick and one of college football’s most talked-about players ahead of the 2021 campaign, Thibodeaux now commands the nation’s attention.
That includes opponents, like offensive lineman Jaxson Kirkland from rival Washington.
“That’ll be a great challenge,” Kirkland said when asked of facing Thibodeaux at Pac-12 media day. “It’s going to be a taste of the NFL, because you’re going to get guys like Kayvon Thibodeaux every Sunday. I’m looking forward to the battle.”
Thibodeaux is indeed the type of player who’ll be seen on Sundays, but perhaps not every Sunday. His uniqueness is what makes him such a coveted prospect.
What’s more, he’s a rare breed when not on the field in a way that carries over once he steps on the turf.
He opened his media-day podium session producing dazzling championship rings from each of Oregon’s two Pac-12 championships and its 2020 Rose Bowl and carefully lining them up in front of him. But what might have appeared as braggadocio initially functioned as a storytelling device that offers insight to Thibodeaux’s approach.
“You’ve got all the memorabilia to look back on as far as the rings and stuff like that, to kind of appreciate. Overcoming one challenge or one piece of adversity is just another opportunity for another challenge,” he said. “If I didn’t have these rings, if we didn’t do what we did to get here, I wouldn’t even be here today.
“It’s another piece of motivation,” he added. “When I leave here, I can put them back in the box and probably won’t see them for another couple years, because I’ll be trying to get the next one.”
Thibodeaux’s comments in 2021 reflect a similar sentiment he expressed in December 2019 after his stellar conference championship game performance. Past accomplishments reflect the work put in to reach that point, but Thibodeaux echoed the recent comments of NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Giannis Antetokounmpo: The past is your ego.
In invoking one of the top stars in sports today, Thibodeaux also called back to lessons from his youth in South Central Los Angeles. He credits Antonio Patterson, who headed up Thibodeaux’s middle-school Pop Warner program and is president of the Jream Youth Development Program, for mentoring him to use the attention his athleticism commands for others’ betterment.
“I’ve always been the biggest guy, I’ve always been the tallest guy,” Thibodeaux said. “[Patterson] always said, ‘You’re the biggest guy in the room, so make sure what you say is profound.’”
Those around him recognize this quality. For as physically gifted as Thibodeaux is, and as talented as he is at defensive end, coaches praised his intellect and demeanor without mentioning his sacks or tackles for loss.
“His ability to listen and learn and see things and take in information is really good,” Avalos said. “Not just in football, either.”
“It’s his best quality,” said Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal. “The way he pushes himself, the way he demands of himself is really his best trait. I think it carries over [to the team].”
Thibodeaux is thus the face of the Ducks’ 2021 championship aspirations. With the coming season almost certainly being his last before embarking on the NFL, three straight Pac-12 titles and a College Football Playoff appearance are among the remaining milestones from which he can earn more memorabilia.
Then, college football’s best edge rusher will chase more goals — most having nothing to do with the sport.
“I hope to open a school eventually,” he said. “Be a real force in the change, influencing younger generations.”
Truly, beyond that jump shot...is there anything Kayvon Thibodeaux can’t do?
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.