Oregon Ducks Football - FishDuck.com in Eugene, OR

Oregon Ducks Football: The Next Kayvon Thibodeaux

Alex Heining Editorials

Our Oregon Ducks football program has needed a spark on the defensive line since Kayvon Thibodeaux’s departure last offseason, and it looks like the Ducks are going to reignite that fire in 2023.

While Thibodeaux was one of the best things to hit the streets of Eugene since Voodoo Donuts, replacing his services wasn’t going to be accomplished overnight. Following his drafting to the New York Giants, the Ducks have desperately needed a complete pass rusher to terrorize the PAC-12. Brandon Dorlus has come a long way to solidify himself as a solid edge defender, and has offered his talents as a veteran piece of this defense for several campaigns now.  Unfortunately, though, he too will be out the door following the conclusion of the 2023 season.

The fact is that the Ducks’ defense will not be effective this year without stepping up their game in the front seven. The revamped linebacking core and defensive line is backed by a strong secondary, where one or two difference-makers in Trikweze Bridges or Dontae Manning will need to make their presence felt for the defenders up front to see a highly-productive defense flourish in 2023.

As we’ve found with recent transfers in college football, a serviceable safety or inside linebacker is far more available than an edge, and the Ducks were able to pivot this offseason after losing two high-impact inside linebackers by acquiring Jestin Jacobs. Jacobs will aim to replace the leadership and command that Noah Sewell and Justin Flowe had in guiding this Oregon defense from the linebacker spot, and a front seven in need of some high-octane energy alongside some of the other leaders of the defense in Dorlus, Mase Funa and Bridges. Now, toss a top-edge rusher into the mix? The Ducks should hit the ground running in 2023.

Kayvon Thibodeaux - Oregon Ducks Football - FishDuck.com in Eugene, OR

Kayvon Thibodeaux was a trendsetter on the edge for Oregon’s future of acquiring defensive talent – Photo via Craig Strobeck

Kayvon Thibodeaux’s Impact on Future Pass Rushers in Eugene

Thibodeaux’s commitment to the Ducks was a huge splash in the recruiting class of 2019 for the future of Oregon football, and has already begun paying dividends under Lanning’s regime. Since he was drafted to the NFL, it seems like every other week the Ducks are buzzing with new top recruits from defensive line players that aim to parallel the mammoth-esque tandem of Arik Armstead/ Deforest Buckner from a decade ago.

But to once again expect the No.1 recruit in the nation to land as Thibodeaux’s replacement is unfair to Lanning and his staff. However, What we can expect instead is for his production to be replaced by a handful of new players in rotation. Today, most fans and analysts are looking straight to 2024 recruiting for that new spark plug to be plugged in.

Elijah Rushing - Oregon Ducks Football - FishDuck.com in Eugene, OR

Superstar defensive end Elijah Rushing is hot on Oregon’s radar in the media – Photo Via On3

Elijah Rushing’s Projection to Join the Ducks

Hot on the trail for new talents, Sports Illustrated put out a prediction a few days ago for Rushing to land with the Ducks in 2024. Although they didn’t directly compare the two players necessarily, it’s safe to assume the Ducks’ staff would expect Rushing to fill a similar role that Thibodeaux dominated in his time at Oregon.

Now don’t get me wrong; it would be outstanding for the Ducks to land a player like Rushing in 2024. Lanning’s recruiting has been exceptional, and being able to boast another 5-star under his belt as a program-defining recruiter would only further cement his position as the unquestioned leader of this program.

Fortunately, I don’t think we need to wait until 2024. I see the next Thibodeaux-esque players as already being on the Ducks’ roster.

Matayo Uiagalelei - Oregon Ducks Football - FishDuck.com in Eugene, OR

Uiagalelei joins his brother in the PAC-12 and looks to put his own stamp on college football with the Ducks – Photo via EliteCollege_FB

Matayo Uiagalelei

Overall, Uiagalelei makes the most sense as a plug-and-play freshman coming into his own as a freak edge defender. His size and athleticism will immediately demand attention from PAC-12 offensive lines, and with the ability we’ve seen him display as a receiving threat at tight end in high school, I wouldn’t be surprised in the least to see him wreck games early by taking a few poorly thrown screen passes or strip sacks back to the house.

Of course, competing for playing time as a freshman is always a gamble. Sometimes it takes a handful of games or even a full season before we see players like Uiagalelei break out and adjust to the speed of the college game. Still, if anyone’s going to make that transition from this group of freshmen, I see it being Uiagalelei.

The bottom line is: if he does end up having an immediate impact on this defense the same way that Kayvon did, he’ll be the catalyst that transforms Oregon’s defense into a Gang Green-esque squad again.

Johnny Bowens III - Oregon Ducks Football - FishDuck.com in Eugene, OR

Elite athleticism with all the right tools. Combined with his size, Bowens III should dominate the PAC-12 – Photo via badgordie1

Johnny Bowens III

On the other hand, Bowens III has a real opportunity of becoming the next top-ranked pass rusher out of Oregon as well. His timeline might be a bit longer than Uigalelei’s, but his athleticism from the basketball court combined with a similar build to Thibodeaux should earn him some playing time both on third-down passing plays and against the run early. Additionally, his high school tape offers all that infectious enthusiasm you look for in a defender, and I feel he’ll develop into a leader swiftly and ferociously.

As for his 2023 running mate, I think Dorlus couldn’t be a better player to learn from. I certainly could see Bowens III developing more into a bull rusher rather than relying solely on his lateral athleticism, and Dorlus is the perfect mentor to establish him early as a reliable pass-rushing threat while still defending the run.

Bottom Line: Oregon’s Poised to Ravage PAC-12 Offenses

Now, each of these players may not be the next Thibodeaux necessarily. But replicating his production? That might get them into position to be a top-10 pick in the NFL Draft, as well as push the Ducks to a College Football Playoff appearance. That kind of effort would take a huge weight off the shoulders of the defense and put it right back where it belongs: on an all-star offensive attack led by Bo Nix and co.

While this might not be Oregon’s most proven defense in the last decade or so, there’s a good mix of both experienced and raw talent that you look for in an elite group to shut down 2023 offenses. Perhaps we’re in store for a return to the Gang Green of old, and some elite defensive line play that puts us over the top, sending USC and UCLA out of the PAC-12 on a sour note.

Anyway, enough from me, Oregon fans. What do you think of the Ducks’ chances this year to replicate Thibodeaux’s play? Do you think new recruits are going to make that jump in future seasons, or familiar faces are already ready to take a leap in 2023? Let us know in the FishDuck Forum with decorum.

Go Ducks!

Alex Heining
Los Angeles, California
Top photo via: Tom Corno

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