In the back of Kayvon Thibodeaux’s mind, the mental scaffolding for the 2022 NFL Draft has already been built. The crazies in the crowd wearing Ford engine blocks on their heads are screaming his name, hoping he transforms their team’s defense. Fashionistas are dressing him, marketers are promoting him, agents are positioning him. The green room might as well be a launching pad.
“I think about it a lot,” said Oregon’s rising junior defensive end. “I try not to get too deep into it and [spend too much time] focused on it because it will really distract you from the work at hand. … [But] I do think about it, and it is crazy to think about.”
Coming off another week that has transformed a mere talent allocation process into a stand-alone mega-event, Thibodeaux seems to be perfectly positioned to be the leader of next year’s draft pack. Or something close to it.
Only having played 20 games at Oregon thus far, he has done nothing to diminish his career arc reflected by the three words tattooed on the outside of his right arm: “The Chosen One”.
“I got it because no one in my family has done anything,” Thibodeaux once told reporters. “We don’t have anything to live for. The name means nothing. Thibodeaux means nothing. The opportunity that I have and the talent that I’ve been blessed with, I’m able to change the dynamic and change the forefront of my future, my family’s future.”
At first glance, the South Central Los Angeles native is another brash college talent boasting his way to more attention and page views. But there’s something different about this “Chosen One”.
At 6-foot-5 and 260 pounds, Thibodeaux is as intimidating as it gets coming off the edge. He will go into the season among the top national defensive player of the year candidates, and yes, he’s even getting Heisman Trophy buzz.
As a commodity, Thibodeaux seems way ahead of his peers. At times, he seems to have his whole life planned out, thinking years into the future. The draft being only a jumping off point.
“He loves this,” said Greg Biggins, a 247Sports national recruiting analyst based in Southern California. “He’s kind of wired for it.”
You want this guy on your team. He’s already in some heads.
“Fear is a big thing in football,” Thibodeaux said. “Once they fear you, they’re done.”
A year away from possibly transforming himself, his family and the draft, Thibodeaux has already transformed Oregon. As the No. 2 prospect in the Class of 2019, according to the 247Sports Composite, Thibodeaux has been the tip of Mario Cristobal’s recruiting spear.
“We feel he’s the most disruptive player in college football. He’ll be used as such,” Cristobal said succinctly.
Then when the praise became almost too lavish, the Oregon coach dropped into coach mode.
“You guys are killing me,” Cristobal said last week. “We haven’t played a season. We haven’t had the ’21 draft; we’re headed for the ’22 draft. We feel he can be the best player in the country. It’s safe saying that because, knowing him, he’s going to use that motivation. He’s not going to allow that to go to his head.”
That’s the concern for any star player who sits a year away from the required three years out of high school that are a requirement for NFL Draft eligibility. For Thibodeaux, it’s part of the plan. He wants to be an attorney, advocating — maybe even litigating — South Central out of poverty. That fantastic plan just part of a fantasy life that lies ahead.
“For me, I knew that college was a pit stop,” he said.
What do they say about motors? Forget football for a moment, Thibodeaux’s personal engine continues to rev back to the future. A year from now, he should be an NFL Draft superhero. The analysts will latch onto his Ruthian achievements that have become legend.
In a Pop Warner all-star game, as an eighth grader, Thibodeaux was kicked out for safety issues. He was simply that dominant against normal middle schoolers. His 3.8 high school GPA allowed him to be recruited by Stanford. He made stops at three Southern California high schools, the final one being powerful Oaks Christian where the children of Wayne Gretzky and Joe Montana once prepped. He trekked to eclectic Venice Beach one day as a high schooler, challenging random locals to chess matches.
Thibodeaux is more than aware of his potential as a brand in the coming age of name, image and likeness.
“It’s not, ‘I can be a brand,'” Thibodeaux said. “I am [a brand].”
Thibodeaux’s annual NIL social media earnings are already valued at $55,000, according to Opendorse, an athlete marketing platform based in Lincoln, Nebraska. That’s before the world gets to know there is a social conscience behind that social media account.
“For African-Americans, we’re [producing] entertainers,” said Thibodeaux, who is Black. “If you look at it over the years, it’s entertain, entertain, entertain. One of my main focuses is I’m not an entertainer. I take this serious. For me, it’s a job, so I want to educate.”
If the whole “Chosen One” thing sounds LeBronesque, well, draw your own conclusions.
“The brand I want to build, I don’t want to just drop something; I want to make sure it’s perfect,” he said. “I want to make sure it can come out on Netflix, HBO. I want to get the big deals and really work it.”
Thibodeaux prefers to come off as learning more than lecturing. The 20-year-old wished he’d been born before the internet to better understand the negative parts of what it has become.
“I hate to get spiritual, but I feel like I’ve been here before,” Thibodeaux said. “I’m kind of an older soul.”
He has no problem listing the reasons why an inner-city L.A. kid went to the Pacific Northwest to find stardom.
“It was journalism. It was Nike. It was Cristobal. It was the whole program,” he said.
It was actually more than that. Thibodeaux knew he was something different, something special before the term “player empowerment” was coined. He took the recruiting process by the throat, interviewing key figures during official visits and turning the recruiting process upside down.
Oregon journalism professor Deb Morrison remains tickled Thibodeaux sought her out on his recruiting visit.
“He sat there and gave me his outlook on life,” Morrison told the University of Oregon website.
Thibodeaux’s mother, Shawnta Loice, taught her son the ultimate interview technique: real life. Know the answer before the question is asked.
“So don’t waste any time lying to me,” she said when questioning her son.
Most teenagers’ outlook on life at this stage extends to the next rager. Thibodeaux’s is detailed and expanding. That outlook included becoming a broadcast journalism major with an emphasis on advertising.
“The way I look at it, no matter what, something has to be sold,” Thibodeaux said. “If you can learn the inner workings of how things are sold, who they’re sold to and why they’re sold to them … that’s kind of the way I’ve been using it.”
A lot rests on his shoulders. Oregon is the dominant program in a conference whose reputation has slipped. Thibodeaux’s kind of edge speed rush ability can transform a defense and wreck an offense. It is a position that can be silent for long stretches and still impact a game.
In those 20 career college games, Thibodeaux has 12 sacks and 23.5 tackles for loss. In four career postseason games, he has 3.5 sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss. With his help, the Ducks became the second Pac-12 team to win back-to-back conference titles.
“I don’t think you’ll see him dropping into coverage anytime soon,” Cristobal quipped when asked about Thibodeaux mentioning a position change to outside linebacker.
Thibodeaux will be moving around more in new coordinator Tim DeRuyter’s defense. Does it matter if the 2020 All-Pac 12 talent’s hand is in the dirt or not? The best college defensive end has been drafted no lower than No. 6 overall in eight of the last nine drafts.
Thibodeaux says he hasn’t met his own expectations. COVID-19 hit the Pacific Northwest particularly hard. The Ducks played in the Pac-12 Championship Game only because Washington couldn’t when the coronavirus struck the Huskies. Oregon played only seven games (4-3) with two canceled and losses in three of its last four.
“I feel like I let that adversity get to me, and we let it get to us as a team,” Thibodeaux said. “I wouldn’t necessarily say my routine wasn’t what I wanted, but we got sent home twice, I think three times from COVID. It stopped our training time; it stopped our momentum.”
Months spent cooped up because of COVID-19 allowed the star to fantasize about the 2022 NFL Draft long before it became a reality.
Beyond pushing Oregon toward a third straight Pac-12 title and a shot at the College Football Playoff, Thibodeaux is arguably a recruiting fulcrum. He’s the human leverage the West Coast may need to keep its best players at home.
When Thibodeaux hears the big names that have been recruited out of the West, he already knows what question is coming next: How to do you keep them “home”?
Three notable, highly-rated California prospects are among plenty who have recently gone East to top national powers like Alabama (Najee Harris, Bryce Young) and Clemson (D.J. Uiagalelei). Harris was drafted in the first round by the Steelers, while Young and Uiagalelei are projected to start at quarterback for their respective teams this season.
“If I could be honest, what’s true about the West Coast other than Oregon and Mario Cristobal [is that] everybody else is laid back,” Thibodeaux said. “When you say football is more serious in the South, it is.”
From 2013-18, the top-ranked prospect in California went to USC or UCLA, according to 247Sports. Thibodeaux’s decision helped break that streak, but it started another. In Cristobal’s four recruiting classes as Oregon’s coach, he has signed 23 California players rated in the top 25 in the state. That’s almost the equivalent of one entire recruiting class from The Golden State.
“I don’t know if this is the Holy Spirit or what,” Shawnta Loice told her son. “I really like those guys. I really trust them with you.”
What will life be like a year from now on the red carpet, in the green room and on the cusp of whatever the next Chosen One can accomplish?
“I just know, when the time comes, I’ll [enjoy] the moment,” Thibodeaux said. “You can remember I said that because I feel like what a people lose sight of is that, without football, nothing else is possible.”
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