EUGENE, Ore. -- Kayvon Thibodeaux's first head-turning play at Oregon didn't happen by design.
While trying to get the defense off the field on third down during a two-minute drill this spring, the true freshman defensive end found himself beat almost as soon as he started. Shortly after he broke off the line for the quarterback, his 300-plus-pound offensive line counterpart stopped Thibodeaux dead in his tracks.
So Thibodeaux improvised. He backpedaled off the lineman to get a better view of quarterback Justin Herbert, who was looking in his direction. As soon as the ball was released, Thibodeaux jumped and stuck his arm up.
The ball deflected off his hand, then he corralled it and sprinted the other way for a nifty practice pick-six.
Thibodeaux's unreal athleticism and talent got him on the field, but it's how he mixes brain and brawn that has him poised to be one of the nation's most exciting freshmen this fall.
"It's instincts," Thibodeaux said. "I truly think that's why I'm so good is because I have instincts. I'm not the strongest, I'm not the fastest, but I can make plays. You have to have a feel for the ball.
"Even when I'm not in the play, I'm still in the play."
Add that to the long list of reasons Thibodeaux was the nation's No. 1 overall prospect in the 2019 recruiting class. A freak of a 6-foot-5 edge rusher who was nicknamed "Diesel" as a baby because he weighed 10 pounds, 4 ounces at birth, Thibodeaux is the highest-rated recruit to sign with Oregon, which just produced its highest-rated recruiting class (No. 6). More important, he's the exact kind of athlete and body type coach Mario Cristobal needs to construct his Pac-12 version of an SEC army.
It's no secret that Cristobal is trying to take the best of what he saw and developed during his time coaching in the South -- specifically the SEC -- and incorporate it in his program at Oregon. So landing Thibodeaux, who picked the Ducks over Alabama, was a major first win for that vision.
"He's off the charts," Cristobal said of Thibodeaux. "The five-star talent was obvious; it's the five-star mentality, the five-star effort. He is that kind of guy. You're never sure what you're going to get until you start practice. And everything he does is 100 miles per hour.
"You need guys that are part of your recruiting class, as high school players, that can contribute right away and can keep developing in your program. They keep elevating the program."
Thibodeaux said he didn't start taking football seriously until just about every school in America came calling after his junior year of high school, yet he recorded 54 career sacks over four years of prep ball. He also had a sack in 16 of 27 games as a junior and senior at Oaks Christian High School near Los Angeles.
"He's a specimen," senior linebacker Troy Dye said.
Thibodeaux walked into Eugene squatting 500 pounds and says he can play at 250 pounds without losing his explosiveness or coverage ability.
"I don't think I've ever seen a [high school] senior walk in at 6-5, 250 that plays like he does," Herbert said. "He's gifted."
The Ducks are hoping he's a lot more by the time his Oregon career is over. But what he stands for is a shift in the foundation in Eugene. Cristobal won't sign multiple Kayvon Thibodeauxs -- or even one -- every year, but Thibodeaux is the model for what it takes to win beyond the Pac-12's footprint.
The goal is to win the conference first, but to make a playoff run and beat the Clemsons, Alabamas and Ohio States, Cristobal said he has to build a team that looks like them. He wants bigger, more athletic linemen on both sides. He wants more length and height on his skill players. Immediately, Thibodeaux looks the part, and the hope is that he plays it in the coming months, but he's just one (very important) piece to all this.
When Cristobal talks about his 2019 class of 25, he points to 11 signees who have those SEC-like body types he covets. You have 6-3 defensive tackle Keyon Ware-Hudson, who is up to nearly 300 pounds. DE Mase Funa is 6-3, 260.
"I don't think I've ever seen a [high school] senior walk in at 6-5, 250 that plays like he does. He's gifted."Oregon QB Justin Herbert
Then there's 5-11, 198-pound receiver Mycah Pittman. Built more like a running back, he was one of the Ducks' top receiving targets this spring. Oregon beat out Florida for the ESPN 300 member, who will miss six to eight weeks because of a shoulder injury.
Cristobal hopes that the physical transformation in this recruiting class is only the beginning, and the area he really wants to nail is up front. He got a head start with franchise left tackle Penei Sewell, who looks fit enough to be a defensive end at 325 pounds, a year before the Thibodeaux signing, and Cristobal knows that to compete beyond the borders of the Pac-12, he has to pack the trenches. It's how the SEC has dominated the sport and is the blueprint Clemson followed to build its recent championship surge.
That's why pairing Thibodeaux with thick, rangy ends like Brandon Dorlus, who chose the Ducks over Florida, and Treven Ma'ae was crucial in Oregon's 2019 class. It's why ESPN 300 OT Jonah Tauanu'u, who is up to 335 pounds, and 6-6 Malaesala Aumavae-Laulu, the nation's No. 1 junior college OG, were top priorities.
"Every coach in America is on the clock, right? And how long does it usually take to develop big guys -- three years? Well, you better start that clock as soon as you can, now," Cristobal said. "So, if you get guys who are really good players and can help right away, you just hit a home run. You're getting them to play for you right now and you just alleviated the most difficult part of a program to fix: the pits."
Cristobal and his staff targeted a number of alpha athletes in recruiting, but they also emphasized where they got them. Without the luxury of making the Southeast their geographic priority -- though the Ducks did sign eight Southeastern prospects, including four ESPN 300 members -- Cristobal zeroed in on Oregon's old stomping grounds: Southern California.
Cristobal picked up where legendary Oregon coach Chip Kelly left off by making SoCal -- especially the Los Angeles area -- the biggest geographic priority, signing 11 players from the region.
The densely populated area is a fertile recruiting ground that provides West Coast schools with a slew of top-end talented players, coaches and training facilities, which promote year-round development for prospects.
As Oregon's coach from 2009 to '12, Kelly, now UCLA's coach, went into Los Angeles and sold innovation and a nontraditional school nearly 900 miles north to pull athletes away from USC. While Kelly wasn't always looking for the obvious stars, Cristobal took Kelly's model and supercharged it by signing eight four-star prospects, including six ESPN 300 players, from Southern California.
"We got some dudes, man. We got some dudes in this class," he said.
The biggest and baddest dude is Thibodeaux, and while he admits that Oregon had "no shot" and he was Bama bound until he really started to bond with the Ducks' coaches during the 2018 season, the phenom has already made a huge impact on the future of this program before even playing a collegiate down.
While there wasn't a major influx of players who signed with Oregon in the last class because of Thibodeaux, Cristobal said he has noticed a spike in interest from prospects and prep coaches across the country when it comes to the Ducks because Thibodeaux is on campus.
Recruits are noticing Oregon again. On-field results will matter, but Oregon's big 2019 recruiting win with Thibodeaux makes duplicating the most recent class' success easier moving forward.
"It's critical because here's a guy who's recognizable ... not only by name but because he can flat out play ball," Cristobal said. "That just screams loudly of the caliber of talent and the commitment to bringing that kind of talent."