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Badgers brace for Oregon defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux
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Badgers brace for Oregon defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux

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Kayvon Thibodeaux photo

Oregon defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux set a program record for a freshman with nine sacks this season. He has 14 total tackles for loss.

Kayvon Thibodeaux mug


LOS ANGELES — Kayvon Thibodeaux wears his origin on his left arm.

The tattoo depicts part of what the Oregon freshman defensive end saw growing up in Los Angeles. Palm trees and the L.A. skyline sit atop the L.A. Dodgers’ logo in the image. He’s proud of where he’s from and what he’s accomplished in his first year with the program.

He said Friday at a news conference going to college was far from a given growing up.

“For me, college wasn’t even a dream,” Thibodeaux said. “I guess for a lot of kids that come from where I come from, you don’t even have the hopes for college.”

His journey through his first year as a college football player is about to come full circle when Oregon (11-2) takes on the University of Wisconsin (10-3) in the Rose Bowl. While Thibodeaux went to Oaks Christian High School in the L.A. suburb of Thousand Oaks, he was raised in South Central L.A. — across the street from the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, he said.

He didn’t get to go to any Rose Bowls as a child, but he remembers seeing buses roll through his neighborhood filled with Rose Bowl-bound teams. This will be the second time this season Thibodeaux has played in the L.A. area, with the Ducks’ game at Southern Cal the first.

Thibodeaux was a prized recruit, the top-rated player in California and a top-10 prospect nationwide by the major recruiting services last year. He was the most heralded recruit in Oregon’s history. After enrolling early, he quickly made an impression.

“I think it was when we were doing some conditioning and he was running like a gazelle, and I was like, ‘Man, that kid is going to be special,’” senior inside linebacker Troy Dye said. “Because when you can run really well, you can practice well, you have good cardio, you are bound to make it.”

Junior safety Brady Breeze remembers the first snaps Thibodeaux took in a No. 1 offense vs. No. 1 defense setting. Thibodeaux bolted around the edge and would’ve sacked quarterback Justin Herbert in a game setting.

“It was like, ‘Wow, dude, he just put a move on one of our linemen,’” Breeze said. “The guy is a baller. He’s somebody we’re proud of.”

Thibodeaux has played in all 13 games, with five starts, for the Ducks; he’s listed as a starter for the Rose Bowl. His nine sacks are a program record for a freshman, and he has 14 tackles for loss. He’s been especially productive in the past four games, accounting for 5½ of his sacks in that stretch, and had the best game of his career against Utah in the Pac-12 Championship Game.

Against the Utes, Thibodeaux had 2½ sacks, five tackles and he blocked a punt. He was voted the Freshman Defensive Player of the Year in the Pac-12.

Thibodeaux said he was hesitant to start the year, not fully trusting himself in a new scheme and in the college setting. But once things clicked in the second half of the season, he became a game-changer.

“In the beginning of the year, I feel like I didn’t contribute enough,” he said. “There was a lot more I could’ve done. I was kind of hesitant because of the (starting) situation and I didn’t really know about college football. As the season went on I got more confident and I was able to just play the game.”

Oregon defensive coordinator Andy Avalos knew he had a special athlete on his hands when he saw how Thibodeaux — listed at 6-foot-5 and 242 pounds — got off the ball. The quickness of his movements on the snap were rare, Avalos said. Thibodeaux just needed to find ways to refine those raw traits.

Thibodeaux was active in trying to find ways to improve. Dye said Thibodeaux was consistently getting extra work before and after workouts and practices, going through hand-fighting and footwork drills.

“When a young guy is doing that at 18 years old, you can tell they’ll have a really good career because if you’re starting off young like that with that work ethic, it’ll last for the rest of your life,” Dye said.

UW has seen its share of great defensive ends this season. To name a few: Ohio State’s Chase Young, whom the Badgers played twice, was a Heisman Trophy finalist; Iowa’s A.J. Epenesa is slated to go in the first round of the NFL draft; and Michigan State’s Kenny Willekes is expected to be a mid-to-late-round NFL draft pick.

But the Badgers know Thibodeaux presents unique challenges because of how the Ducks shift their defense before the snap.

“They’re probably the most aggressive defense we’ve seen all year, with different shifts and different disguises and things like that and how multiple they can be with their fronts,” running back Garrett Groshek said. “In the Big Ten, you weren’t getting as much shifting and things like that where they do a lot of it. And it makes you be honest and having to watch the extra film to see if there’s any keys or anything like that to what they’re doing.”

Keeping quarterback Jack Coan clean has been one of UW’s best attributes this season. The offensive line has allowed 20 sacks and just five multi-sack games, two of which came against Ohio State.

The Badgers need to keep Thibodeaux away from Coan as much as possible and keep him from reaching a pair of goals he’s set for himself — notching a 10th sack on the season and breaking the Rose Bowl record with more than three sacks in the game.

“God willing, I’ll try to break it,” he said.

Preview: Three keys to Badgers’ success in the Rose Bowl

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