Why Thibodeaux Picked the UO
For the nation’s No. 1 recruit, Allen Hall was just as important as Autzen Stadium
UO defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux—pronouned TIB-uh-doh—is a Renaissance man.
He’s done his own laundry since he was 15.
The 23rd-highest ranked prospect in history, and the consensus No. 1-ranked player in the 2019 recruiting class, is all over YouTube… challenging strangers to chess matches at Venice Beach.
His campus visits included football powerhouses Alabama, USC, and Florida State. Also on the list? Florida A&M, one of the nation’s more than 100 historically black colleges and universities, giving him the opportunity to draw national attention to educational institutions with proud academic and athletic histories that nevertheless don’t typically attract elite football prospects.
As for the UO, when asked what attracted him to Eugene over Tuscaloosa, Tallahassee, and his own hometown of Los Angeles, he begins by namedropping professors.
“[On my campus tour] I saw every building, every classroom, everything,” he said. “But it wasn’t about the facilities; it was about meeting the people. Like Deb Morrison, she’s a great person. I connected with her when I first got here, and she’s been helping me ever since.”
Morrison, the Carolyn Silva Chambers Distinguished Professor of Advertising at the UO’s School of Journalism and Communication, was just as taken with Thibodeaux as he was with her.
“Once he got here in January, he wrote to me and asked for an appointment,” said Morrison. “Those skills are not ones that a lot of freshmen bring in. He wrote, and he said, ‘I’d like to take half an hour to an hour and really talk about what I see as my dreams and my mission.’ And he sat here and gave me his outlook on life. ‘I know football is going to take me to a new place, but I want to have the tools for afterwards.’
“I have a book about creative confidence. He said, ‘I think I have that, but I need to know how to use it. What do I do with that?’ I want all of my students to be successful, but I love the fact that this student, with his privilege and his pulpit with so many followers on Twitter, is still able to beautifully talk about what his mission is, and ask the right questions.”
On the football field, Thibodeaux’s mission is to be as much of a wrecking ball as possible. As an eighth grader, he was once kicked out of a Pop Warner All-Star game because his opponents couldn’t physically handle the force of his tackles. He played two years at Dorsey High School in LA before transferring to Oaks Christian School, 45 miles away. He drove himself to and from school in a Ford Mustang five years older than he is, then drove over opposing quarterbacks on the football field, registering sacks in 16 of the 27 games he played for Oaks Christian—including four sacks in the state championship game.
Vice magazine referred to him as the best player in the class of 2019 and potentially “the best pass rusher to come out of the West Coast this millennium”—while he was still a sophomore in high school. On his official UO football profile page, the list of schools interested in signing him stretches to 25 before helpfully adding “and others.”
Kayvon Thibodeaux and his family while he was in high school
But for all of his physical gifts on the field, Thibodeaux is just as big a force to be reckoned with off it. By the end of his second year at Dorsey High he’d decided he wanted to become a lawyer, rebuild Dorsey, and help uplift his entire community in South Central LA. He graduated from Oaks Christian with a 3.8 GPA, but with a change to one of his stated career goals: he now wants to be a broadcast journalist.
That meant, while he was visiting the likes of South Bend, Baton Rouge, Ann Arbor, Norman, and College Station on recruiting trips, he was checking out journalism schools just as much as he was checking out the football facilities. And when he arrived in Eugene, he fell in love.
“I was looking at, ‘How can I be helped? How can I achieve my goals?’” Thibodeaux said. “A lot of schools have great programs, great this-and-that. But for me, I realized connections are a thing that really matter. Opportunity is the biggest thing. I was looking at, ‘Where can I go that will give me the best opportunity for the future?’ And Oregon has it.
“I’ve met a lot of people, been a lot of places. A lot of people tried to sell me a used car, but it doesn’t really work. I know what I want. I know what I want to do. And I feel like Oregon gives me the best platform and the best tools to reach my goals.”
—Deb Morrison, Carolyn Silva Chambers Distinguished Professor of Advertising
The SOJC will certainly help Thibodeaux—and any student enrolled in it, whether they can sack a quarterback or not—make connections and succeed after graduation. Allen Hall’s Experience Hub, set to open in fall 2019, will provide students with a virtual reality lab, social media analytics lab, video and photo production studio and editing bays, podcast studio, equipment checkout, academic and career services, and collaborative spaces, to help students hone their skills in a professional environment.
The biggest thing the school offers students, though, is the opportunity to see the world through experiential learning. In New York City, students are introduced to representatives of some of the advertising industry’s top agencies and the world’s major media outlets. In Alaska and Ghana, they get to cover the effects of climate change and tell the stories of people living in communities completely unlike their own.
“I’ve never been at a place that has such dedicated faculty when it comes to the student experience,” said Morrison. “You have to nurture skills that will end up having a huge impact on the world. Journalism, advertising, public relations, media studies; they have to be in a place, and they aren’t scantron moments. There has to be a lot of personal interaction, and a lot of it in the field. All of us here take students places, and that’s where the opportunity comes in.
“Our experiential programs solve problems responsibly for people, and teach the type of critical, conceptual, and creative skills that that takes. We know a narrative is important, but you have to add the importance of visuals. Then, how do you make the channel more engaging and reach the right audience? We teach all of those things.”
Thibodeaux was an early enrollee at the UO—two terms early, in fact. Four days before he took his first class during the 2019 winter term, he took to his Twitter account to tell his almost 18,000 followers that the SOJC’s Oregon Reality Lab was “A small glimpse of why I became a duck.” He got acclimated to college life that first term, then called the progression through the spring term “more skill-based.”
“In the SOJC program, they teach you,” he said. “I took a four-day class on media—creating videos, and being a behind-the-scenes camera person. I probably learned more in the four days than I’ve ever learned before.”
The newcomer was able to teach the professional journalists a thing or two, too.
“We were talking with Andrew Haubner, the KEZI sports director,” Morrison said. “We were talking about issues of race, and how do white sports reporters come in and relate to athletes of color in the room. We were having a very robust conversation. [Kayvon] says, ‘One thing is to read Black Like Me. It’s an experience that was written in the ‘50s, and it’s about bridging the divide.’ He gave this speech about how to bridge divides, and he’s only 18. He blew me away.”
As part of one of his SOJC classes, Kayvon Thibodeaux produced a video of him as a journalist (left) interviewing himself as an athlete (right)
Morrison and the SOJC put Thibodeaux through his paces during his first two terms at the UO. The four-day class that made such an impact on the freshman went from 8:00 a.m. until 8:00 p.m. each day. He participated in a media workshop, where he used Adobe Premier Pro to produce a video showing Kayvon Thibodeaux the journalist interviewing Kayvon Thibodeaux the football player in one of Allen Hall’s media labs. He also learned the art of storyboarding to map out how to visually tell a tale.
“That class is about working with an idea and building it out to find a way to build a story, and then storyboarding that,” said Morrison. “Then they have to build a resume. He showed me his resume and I said, ‘No, that’s not the way you want to do it; it has to be smarter than this.’ So he went back and said, ‘What do I need to learn in order to do this?’ I showed him examples, so he wanted to get on Adobe Creative Suite. He’s thinking about how tools are used, and that’s what we want.”
“It’s all about setting up my post-playing career,” Thibodeaux said. “My goal is the NFL, and then after that—who knows?”
Arriving on campus two terms early will be beneficial to Thibodeaux as he works toward completing his degree, because his plans for the future don’t involve staying at the UO for four years. With a school to rebuild and a community to uplift, Thibodeaux wants to take every opportunity the SOJC affords him, then light up the NFL and earn the million-dollar payday that comes with it as soon as possible.
He’s already declared his intention to get 10 sacks each year he’s at the UO; twice the number hauled in by last year’s leading freshman, Juwuan Jones of Western Kentucky. Ten sacks in three years would give him 30 for his career, 12.5 more than Nick Bosa of Ohio State managed in the same amount of time before being drafted second overall by the San Francisco 49ers in April.
Thirty sacks would set him up nicely for an NFL paycheck, which would then set him up nicely for an equally successful post-playing career.
But first, he has a few more classes to take.
“Who cares about parties?” said Thibodeaux. “Who cares about this and that? Who cares about, whatever? Listen. I'm here for three years and I'm here to get the best opportunities, the best education. I'm here to represent myself, my school, my team, and everybody in God's light.”
Thibodeaux’s Quest for 10
Kayvon Thibodeaux is not one to shy away from expectations.
“I want 10 sacks,” he said of his 2019 goal before the season began. “I’ve been told that if you average 10 sacks, that’s how you get to the NFL. So, I want three years of 10 sacks. That’s what I’m pushing for.”
Thibodeaux’s quest for 10 got off to a slow start, as he acclimated to the speed of the college game while mostly serving as a third-down pass rusher behind senior starter Gus Cumberlander. His first sack came in his fourth game, when he and Cumberlander brought Stanford quarterback K.J. Costello to the ground late in Oregon’s win.
The Ducks lost Cumberlander to a season-ending knee injury in the very next game, though. That opened up more playing time for Thibodeaux, and more snaps led to more sacks.
Two against the Bears. One against USC. Two against Arizona. One against Arizona State. Thibodeaux added a season-high 2.5 sacks in the Pac-12 Championship Game win over Utah, giving him nine for the season.
To say he leads the team by a wide margin is an understatement—second on the Ducks is freshman linebacker Mase Funa, with four. In all, almost a quarter of Oregon’s 41 sacks come from Thibodeaux, a true freshman who only started five of the UO’s 13 games.
Thibodeaux’s nine sacks are good for 37th nationally, and he is second among all freshmen nationwide and third in the Pac-12. Not surprisingly, on December 10 he became the first Duck to win Pac-12 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year honors.
And, with one game left in his freshman campaign—the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day—he is just one sack shy of the 10 he set as a goal before the season began.
Ominously for the Badgers, he considers his freshman campaign—where he leads the nation’s ninth-best defense in sacks, tackles for loss, and punt blocks—underwhelming.
“I could have done a little bit more,” said Thibodeaux. “I’ve done pretty well, progressing in my game and my feel for the game towards the end of the season, but I thought I should have been able to do more.”
One Duck fan who will be watching Thibodeaux in the Rose Bowl with interest is former defensive end Nick Reed, the UO’s all-time leader in sacks with 29.5 and an Air Force captain who will be overseeing the B-2 bomber flyover before kickoff. Should Thibodeaux average 10 sacks a year for three years, as he planned, the UO will have a new record holder, and Reed could not be happier for his alma mater.
“I’ll be the first to admit he’s a much better defensive end than I was,” said Reed. “I really like watching him play. I’m proud of my sack record, but I would be very happy to see him break it, because that means more sacks for the Ducks.”