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Oregon Defensive Player to Watch: DE/Joker Kayvon Thibodeaux (injury TBD)

Thibodeaux is an uber-talented pass rusher and projected top-5 NFL draft pick. Buckeye fans and fans of college football should want to see him healthy and dressed for the Ducks on Saturday.

Thibodeaux leads a talented group, but one that is looking to rebound from a less-than-inspiring 2020 and 2021 season opener
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

**Kayvon Thibodeaux is currently listed as day-to-day. While tempting to profile another talented player on the Oregon defense, all eyes should rightfully be on Thibodeaux until we hear whether or not he is going to play in The Shoe. A few of Oregon’s other defensive playmakers are mentioned throughout.**

Well, this piece took an awkward turn… Oregon megastar Kayvon Thibodeaux is THE player to watch for the Ducks. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking offense, defense, or special teams — Thibodeaux is a transcendent talent. Unfortunately, he was injured during Oregon’s opener against Fresno State. After getting to the Fresno State quarterback early, and producing one of the season’s early highlights, the defensive end/Joker was rolled up on by a teammate and forced to miss the second half.

The good news is, Thibodeaux’s injury status is described as day-to-day. I say good news, because as a college football fan, I want to see him out there. As an Ohio State fan, I still want to see him out there! He would be a true test for OSU’s offensive line, and the Buckeyes should want to take on that challenge. You don’t prepare for an Alabama or Georgia defense by facing inferior competition. Ohio State fans should want to see Dawand Jones or Nicholas Petit-Frere go up against the Oregon star. The Ducks have plenty of other talented players on defense, but as long as there is a chance that Kayvon Thibodeaux plays, he is the guy to watch.

Standing in at 6-foot-5 and weighing in at 260 pounds, Thibodeaux looks the part of an impactful edge rusher. The former No. 2 overall recruit from the 2019 recruiting class likely walked onto Oregon’s campus for the first time already looking like the biggest and baddest dude in college football. He was a phenom during the recruiting cycle, and the California native has done nothing but meet or exceed already lofty expectations. He has terrorized the Pac-12, and could now be bringing his highly developed skillset to Columbus.

Thibodeaux is a genetically-engineered defensive end, built in a football lab. He will also get reps at the Joker position, further enhancing his skillset and football IQ. He has great length, great balance/weight distribution — which allows him to maneuver around offensive tackles— is strong enough to push o-tackles behind the line of scrimmage, and fast enough to chase down ball carriers from behind. He is not always stout against the run, but that isn’t what he gets “paid” to do… I guess we can drop the air quotes, since Thibodeaux is now officially getting paid.

His biggest weakness might be that he is not a Buckeye… seriously. Every team in the county would love to have Thibodeaux, including Ohio State. He is that good, and was as highly touted of a prospect as Jack Sawyer and/or J.T. Tuimoloau. The OSU tackles could potentially have their hands full on Saturday, and I would expect Ryan Day and Greg Studrawa to send plenty of double teams Thibodeaux’s way. The Buckeyes should be able to do so, leaving Jones or Petit-Frere one-on-one with Brandon Dorlus.

Dorlus is listed as a DT or DE, but lined up on the opposite side of Thibodeaux against Fresno State. He was named to the PFF Team of the Week for Week 1, but I still feel good about OSU handling that matchup.

Oregon coaches would likely attempt to have Thibodeaux go up against Jones repeatedly, and that has to be at least be on the radar of Ohio State coaches — if not a legitimate concern. Jones is the inexperienced tackle, so he would be a target by default. Although the Oregon DE/Joker was used to play primarily on the weak side in previous seasons, defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter now envisions moving Thibodeaux around as the newly retooled Joker.

The Joker position is a hybrid DE/LB, with the emphasis on playing close to the line of scrimmage and rushing the passer. Wherever Thibodeaux were to line up, I just don’t think the coaching staff could leave Jones or anybody else on an island for the majority of the game. Check out Thibodeaux’s highlights if you have any doubt regarding his ability to wreck shop. His YouTube clips should be behind a paywall, they’re so good.

In his two seasons thus far, Thibodeaux has put up big numbers, despite being thrown into action right away as a freshman, and getting off to a slow start during the 2020 season. He recorded nine sacks in 2019, which was the highest total by a Pac-12 freshman since 2009. He did much of his damage when it mattered most, racking up eight of those nine sacks in the second half of games — and being credited with 2.5 in the Pac-12 Championship Game. He also blocked a punt in that contest, as if he needed to impress people even more. For his standout freshman campaign, Thibodeaux was named to the Freshman All-American team and earned All-Conference honors. Hell of a start, right?

His 2020 performance was a letdown only to those who live and die by sack totals, but that “letdown” was good enough to garner Second and Third-Team All-American votes! Players in his own conference voted Thibodeaux as the best defensive lineman, for which he was given the Morris Trophy. He went the first four games of the season without a sack, before registering one in each of Oregon’s final three games. If one were to look beyond the sack total, you would find that he was credited with 34 QB pressures and 27 hurries according to Pro Football Focus. Twelve of his hurries came in the 2020 version of the Pac-12 Championship Game, which is just an absurd number. Thibodeaux was living in the backfield.

Kayvon Thibodeaux’s ability to impact a game mirrors that of a few recent Ohio State pass rushers. He is up there with the Bosa brothers and Chase Young, when it comes to talent and potential. If he does indeed play Saturday, the Buckeyes and their coaching staff need to have a plan for how they will handle him and his newfound freedom to move around. If Thibodeaux is unable to go, there will still be 11 other guys on the field for that Ducks defense. They can’t all fuse together to form a giant Thibodeaux super-robot, but they have plenty of talent to go around.

All jokes aside, Oregon’s defense should be improved in 2021 — and it needs to be if they want to reclaim the borderline elite status they held during most of the 2010s. Thibodeaux alone would pose a threat to the Buckeyes, but the Ducks also brought in a new defensive coordinator (DeRuyter) to infuse new energy and creativity into a unit that disappointed in 2020. Oregon finished 62nd nationally in yards allowed per game and 59th in scoring defense last season, despite the presence of Thibodeaux, Mykael Wright, Noah Sewell (Penei’s brother), and others.

DeRuyter has talent to play with at every level, and the only significant loss from 2020’s defense was Troy Dye, who went on to be drafted by the Minnesota Vikings. DeRuyter led a Cal defense that, with far less talent than Oregon, finished 38th in the country in total defense last season. He will now have the luxury of a more complete unit, potentially led by one of the most talented players in the country.

It must be pointed out that the Ducks have playmakers all over the field on defense. Cornerback Mykael Wright is a two-year starter who has earned Freshman All-American and all-conference honors during his career. Jamal Hill and D.J. James will join Wright in the secondary, after returning from suspension. Hill and James were presumed starters before an offseason incident earned them a seat for Week 1. Dorlus was mentioned previously, and he seems like a breakout candidate if he can keep up the momentum from Saturday. Not far behind Thibodeaux, when it comes to talent and potential to impact a game, are two stud linebackers for the Ducks.

Justin Flowe essentially missed all of 2020, so he could have the biggest impact of any “first-year” defensive player in the country this season
Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Sewell did not spend a second in his brother’s shadow, as he led the team in tackles last season and was also named a Freshman All-American. He is a 6-foot-3, 250-pound wrecking ball at linebacker and forced a fumble of his own against Fresno State. Next to him will be Justin Flowe.

Flowe is the second-highest rated recruit to ever sign with Oregon (behind Thibodeaux), but only played one game in 2020 before suffering an injury. The former top high school linebacker looked fully healthy in his return to the field. He did not earn the start against Fresno State, but came on as an injury replacement during the first quarter and racked up 14 tackles in his first real action as a college linebacker.

Head coach Marion Cristobal is looking to get his team back to the top of the Pac-12 and into the national conversation. Fresno State could have been a stumble, but a win is a win.

Their defense arguably led the way. Kayvon Thibodeaux makes a solid defense even better. If he is out there on Saturday, eyes will be glued to his side of the field. If his injury is too much to overcome, the Ducks will look to take down the Buckeyes with a group effort. Either way, this week will be an entirely different challenge for Ryan Day and the Ohio State staff.