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Kayvon Thibodeaux Is More Than Just the NFL’s Next Superstar Pass Rusher

The elite defensive lineman spurned SEC schools to join Oregon; is one of the first players to profit off his name, image, and likeness; and could be the no. 1 pick in the 2022 NFL draft. Now, he could even lead the no. 3 Ducks back to the College Football Playoff.

Madison Ketcham

In mid-October 2018, Oregon hosted Kayvon Thibodeaux on a recruiting trip. For Thibodeaux, the most memorable part of the trip wasn’t the Ducks’ thrilling 30-27 overtime win against rival Washington. It was meeting Phil Knight, the billionaire Nike founder and University of Oregon mega-donor. Thibodeaux jokingly told Knight that evening, “Hey, you’re gonna make my shoe one day!” Knight laughed at the audacious claim. Still, Thibodeaux says he bumped into Knight four or five more times after that day. Each time, he repeated the message. Shooters shoot, you know?

Thibodeaux’s lighthearted nudging proved to be foreshadowing. Three years later, Thibodeaux is the Ducks’ star pass rusher and arguably the best NFL draft prospect in the country, and on July 6—just days after college athletes earned the right to profit off their name, image, and likeness—Thibodeaux announced his first NIL venture: an NFT art collection created in collaboration with Knight and Tinker Hatfield, Nike’s vice president for design and special projects, who hand-drew the art on an iPad. Knight even called him to set up the deal. It was so unfathomable to Thibodeaux that it took him a moment before realizing it was “Uncle Phil” who was rambling about the idea through the phone.

“You plant the seeds that you will eventually harvest,” Thibodeaux said on a late-July afternoon at Pac-12 media days. “What you do now is gonna set you up for the future.”

Few in college football have laid as sturdy a foundation for their future as Thibodeaux, the South Los Angeles native whose stardom shines so bright that even someone of Knight’s stature can’t ignore it. Thibodeaux arrived at Oregon touted as the 2019 class’s no. 2 prospect—the highest-rated recruit in program history—and immediately lived up to the billing. As a true freshman, he and Justin Herbert, now the Chargers’ star QB, were paired together as lifting partners. “He came in and was 17 years old. I was 21,” Herbert told me in September. “He was able to out-lift me by a couple hundred pounds. I knew then that he was gonna be a special player.” That season, Thibodeaux collected nine sacks and won Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year honors, helping the Ducks to a Rose Bowl win. He grabbed first-team All-Pac-12 honors last season.

Entering the thick of the 2021 campaign, Thibodeaux is considered a strong contender to be the 2022 NFL draft’s no. 1 pick. If the draft had been held in September, The Athletic’s Dane Brugler told me, Thibodeaux would have gone in the top five. “He’s just such a gifted athlete,” Brugler said. “For a guy that’s 6-foot-4, 255 pounds—and then he’s got 34 1/8-inch arms, 10-inch hands—he’s how you draw it up.”

Brugler ranked Thibodeaux as his no. 2 prospect entering the season, a headliner in a draft class that boasts top-shelf defensive talent. Thibodeaux, who missed some time this season due to an ankle injury, is expected to be a full go as no. 3 Oregon looks to maintain its unbeaten start against Stanford on Saturday. The contest could mark Thibodeaux’s first fully healthy game since Week 1 against Fresno State, and could help him continue to bolster his already premium draft stock. But even as Thibodeaux is within reach of his NFL dreams, he remains focused on the present, citing a quote from Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo: When you focus on the past, that’s your ego. When you focus on your future, that’s your pride. When you focus on the present, that’s humility.

“I get to play one last real battle and grind with my teammates, and I gotta do it,” Thibodeaux said before the season. “Once that time [to focus on the draft] comes, and once we play out the season, then we’ll be more focused on whatever’s next.”

It’s almost impossible to miss Thibodeaux on the field. He’s one of the largest players wearing a single-digit jersey (no. 5) in college football, and occasionally sports a bulky J.J. Watt–like elbow brace. Once the ball is snapped, his quickness defies his size. He bursts off the line as if he’s been shot out of a cannon. When he bends around the edge or counters inside, he uses pure strength to bully his way through offensive linemen, finding ways to disrupt opposing passers and derail run games. Thibodeaux makes the demolition look natural—and just two drives into this season he made a game-changing play. He slipped by the Bulldogs’ left tackle and nudged off a recovering guard before hammering the quarterback, dislodging the ball and sending it flying several yards from the point of the collision before Oregon’s Mase Funa recovered it.

New Oregon defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter said that Thibodeaux’s explosiveness reminds him of Broncos star pass rusher Von Miller. DeRuyter served as Texas A&M’s DC during Miller’s senior season, when he recorded 10.5 sacks before Denver chose him with the no. 2 pick in the 2011 draft.

“[Thibodeaux’s] got that unique, elite burst off the edge,” DeRuyter said. “One of the things that I think he probably is even better than Von at is playing the run in his face. He’s got really heavy hands, is very, very physical at the point of attack. Combine that with his speed off of the edge, it really puts him in that elite category as an edge defender.”

Thibodeaux started only five games as a true freshman in 2019, yet still compiled a team-high nine sacks and 14 tackles for loss, along with three passes defensed and a forced fumble. SB Nation’s Justis Mosqueda explained to me that it seemed Oregon brought Thibodeaux along slowly early in his career, using him primarily as a designated pass rusher in specific packages. As Thibodeaux earned more snaps, he established himself as an impact player.

“Explosion off the ball is how he builds a lot of how he wins off the line of scrimmage, in terms of converting speed to power, getting good enough jumps to the ball where he can bend around the corner,” Mosqueda said. “Those are the things that I think you’re going to see day one in the NFL that are gonna give a lot of professional, grown-ass men problems on the offensive line.”

Thibodeaux had a quiet start in 2020. But to some, his lack of sacks only highlighted how consistently disruptive he was in the run game. Plus, eventually the sacks came anyway: Thibodeaux recorded three straight games with sacks to close the regular season, generating a 15.3 percent pressure rate (tied for 32nd nationally), according to Pro Football Focus. His 80.2 PFF run grade ranked tied for 25th.

This season, the Ducks are transitioning from former defensive coordinator Andy Avalos, who’s now the head coach at Boise State, to DeRuyter, who spent the past four seasons at Cal. In DeRuyter’s scheme, Thibodeaux’s role will evolve into that of a true edge rusher, with him occasionally standing up out of a seven-technique alignment as opposed to lining up as a defensive end like he did in Avalos’s. Considering Thibodeaux’s weight, there were questions about whether he could work as a traditional defensive end. Thibodeaux is listed as Oregon’s starting joker, which means he will primarily work as a pass rusher flipping on either side of the formation. It’s not much different from his previous role—according to PFF, he lined up outside of opposing tackles on 92.6 percent of his snaps in 2020. The biggest difference in DeRuyter’s system will be that he’s mostly standing up, rushing out of a two-point stance, which Mosqueda says shouldn’t be an issue.

Pass rushers line up with either their hands in the dirt or standing up. Mosqueda says that Thibodeaux is athletic enough to do both. “Switching the defense, I don’t think, makes as much of a difference for a guy like him and the conference that they’re in, because they’re seeing such wide-open passing offenses.”

Observers have long mistaken Thibodeaux to be older than he actually is, from the football field to school plays. The first time Justin Patterson saw him, Thibodeaux was walking through Angeles Mesa Elementary holding a first-grade teacher’s hand. Justin, a second-grader then, assumed Thibodeaux was a teacher’s aide, until friends informed him otherwise.

Justin’s father, Antonio, taught special education at the school and operated the JREAM Youth Development Organization, a program that has offered underprivileged kids mentorship and sports since 1996. Antonio noticed Kayvon and asked Justin who he was, wondering whether he’d be interested in playing for his football club. Antonio wrote his phone number on a Little Caesar’s napkin for Justin to give to Kayvon after school. “Ever since then,” Justin says, “me and Kayvon have been close.”

Justin Patterson, left, and Kayvon Thibodeaux during their days with the Crenshaw Cougars as kids
Courtesy Justin Patterson

After Thibodeaux’s mom, Shawnta, green-lit her son’s involvement in the program, the Pattersons became family to Thibodeaux. At 8 years old, he began playing for Antonio’s Pop Warner team, the Crenshaw Cougars; he always played up a level, though, because he was too big for kids his age. Thibodeaux regularly hung out with the Pattersons, playing chess and video games at their house before practices.

Antonio liked to offer proverbs to wise kids up. Two of his most recited: “Be somebody to somebody,” and, “Make sure that everything that comes out of your mouth means something.” Thibodeaux took that advice and thrived, his naturally inquisitive personality serving as a foundation for his future. “Kayvon is a different type of person,” Antonio said. “He can fit into any environment, but every environment won’t be conducive to him growing.”

Thibodeaux chooses his words carefully, speaking with a magnetic presence and articulateness that resembles the franchise quarterbacks he’ll be turned loose to chase after. His composure off the field balances out the enthusiasm and passion he exhibits on the field. Thibodeaux, who earned 2020 All-Pac-12 Honor Roll recognition, continues to overcome the stigmas tied to his size, skin color, and hometown. He’s particular about whom and what he associates with. His self-awareness is why he said he presents himself as “very knowledgeable” and why “wisdom is something I’ve really sold myself with.”

Oregon coach Mario Cristobal said that his character off the field and the high standards he sets for himself trickles into his leadership on the field. “I think that’s the best part of him,” Cristobal said. “I think anytime you sign a player that has that five-star status, you want his work ethic, his demeanor, his leadership qualities to be that of a five-star, as well. He has that.”

“Aside from football, people like that don’t come around often,” Justin said. “Just his whole compassion, humility. Just traces that you would see in a president, a politician. Not to get religious, but, like Jesus, in a way that when you want to know what to do, you look at Kayvon.”

Thibodeaux’s size made him an easy target to both look up to and to fear on the football field. Pop Warner rules set weight limits for players, and Thibodeaux would sometimes veer toward weighing too much. To ensure he’d make weight on game days, he’d soak in the Pattersons’ hot tub or not eat in the morning until after being weighed. Then he’d hustle to the snack bar—which he and Justin often worked—and eat as much as he could before his game kicked off.

“He’d play and people would stop the game like, ‘Oh, where’s his birth certificate?! No way he’s 12 years old!’” Justin says. “We’ve heard everything in the book about Kayvon.”

Antonio Patterson, left, with Thibodeaux at an Oaks Christian game in 2018
Courtesy Antonio Patterson

Thibodeaux began his high school career at Junipero Serra High in Gardena, California, where Justin played. But due to a lack of playing time (former five-star DE Oluwole Betiku Jr. was ahead of him on the depth chart), he enrolled at local Dorsey High. Thibodeaux took pride in playing for the school, a former powerhouse that touts several NFL alumni. He blew up, becoming an elite recruit. After his sophomore season, he transferred to Oaks Christian High, a private, predominantly white school in Westlake Village, California, because he wanted more challenging courses. (Even playing strangers in chess required seemingly little mental labor.) Thibodeaux would drive a black 1995 Ford Mustang 80 miles a day to Westlake Village and back, before Shawnta moved to Woodland Hills, cutting his daily journeys almost in half as he transitioned to a white 2016 Kia Soul. In the midst of the fanfare that surrounds a blue-chip high school recruit, Thibodeaux did what he had to do to ensure he would succeed—and not only for his own sake. He’s seen what star athletes like LeBron James and Russell Westbrook have done for their communities. He wants to have a similar impact.

“I feel like I owe something to my community,” Thibodeaux once told Vice Sports’ Mike Piellucci. “When I make it, it’s going to be life-changing for everybody.”

It’s been nearly three years since Thibodeaux tugged a green visor over his head and committed to Oregon over Alabama, Florida, and Florida State. When he was asked why he picked Oregon despite its reputation as an offensive powerhouse, he responded, “’Cause you can take over on a defense. You can be the best man, the biggest man. And that’s my goal.” He’s done just that through his first two years, earning recognition from peers as one of the nation’s premier players.

Brugler says that he thinks Thibodeaux can enter the elite tier of recent pass rush prospects alongside Chase Young, Nick Bosa, and Joey Bosa. Thibodeaux just needs to add more nuance to his pass-rushing arsenal. “It’s like a baseball pitcher who’s really gifted to get a power arm and throw 100 miles an hour, but he’s also got a crazy changeup, and then he’s got a 12-6 curveball,” Brugler explained. “He’s got all these pitches, all with the ability to throw these pitches, but in terms of sequencing, in terms of understanding when to throw which pitch, and then it’s just like a baseball pitcher, understanding the hitter. It’s the same thing with Thibodeaux. Understanding the blocker, understanding when to use power, what moves to set up which blocker, all these little things of playing that edge rush position and breaking down the rhythm of blockers. That’s where he’s still learning, still growing. And that’s par for the course for most guys his age.”

Thibdoeaux’s ventures off the field reinforce a maturity well beyond his years. In addition to his NFT deal with Knight, he added a pact with United Airlines in August, with the company coordinating special, direct flights out of Eugene to select Oregon away games this season. In September, he launched his own cryptocurrency, $Jream, named after the foundation supporting underprivileged youth that he helped found. Thibodeaux jokes that his nickname ought to be “the Concierge” because “I open doors for people.” He adds, “I say that in a sense where I can show guys that now this is possible. Now that you’ve seen I’ve done it, I want to tell you how I did it, right? And I didn’t do it by just [playing on] the field.

“Coming from the inner city [and] going out to Oregon, it was a lot different atmosphere,” he said. “But it gave me the opportunity and the time to really home in on what I want to do. I’ve always looked at college as a pit stop to kind of set up my life for the future.”

Thibodeaux knows what the stage awaiting him will look like. He tweeted that watching the 2020 NFL draft gave him anxiety. And while he understands that his time in Eugene is nearing an end, he said that all the talk of where he’ll get drafted is like “poison” because “it doesn’t really matter. It’s going to be what it’s going to be when the time comes. So if I focus on it, I lose sight of” what’s in front of him. Reminders of the future are everywhere, though, even at practice. DeRuyter estimated that two to six pro scouts show up at every Oregon practice. The first person they ask about? Thibodeaux, whom DeRuyter considers as much a “no-doubter” as anyone he’s ever coached.

“K.T. acts like he’s 30 years old even though he’s 20 years old,” DeRuyter said. “And when you have that maturity, that drive to be great, and that natural skill set—and then the hard work ethic he has—I have no doubt that whoever takes him is going to be overjoyed. He can also be an articulate face of the franchise. I mean, he’s the whole package.”

This piece originally misstated Oregon’s previous defensive coordinator. It was Andy Avalos, not Jim Leavitt. The piece also misstated Avalos’s current job; he is the head coach at Boise State, not the defensive coordinator at SMU.

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