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Why The Best Pass Rusher In College Football Doesn’t Get Many Sacks

One way to measure the tacit respect a football offense has for a defensive player is to monitor how frequently the ball is schemed away from him. For example, it takes only a few snaps to recognize that Oregon defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux is respected by his opposition. 

When the 6-foot-5, 258-pound, likely future No. 1 draft pick lines up, the ensuing action is often diverted to wherever he isn’t. For coaches and quarterbacks alike, this is an act of self-preservation: identifying the player most likely to torpedo the plans of the offense and directing the play to where that reality is least likely. “That’s good coaching,” Thibodeaux said after the Ducks’ win over Colorado, during which Buffaloes quarterback Brendon Lewis threw the ball within two seconds of the snap on a majority of the plays that Thibodeaux was assigned to rush the passer. “If I was a coach and I was going against myself, I wouldn’t let me get a play [in] either.”

On passing downs, the protection will typically slide toward Thibodeaux’s area of the line. It’s not uncommon for Thibodeaux to be chipped, blocked or contacted by two linemen; as Fresno State learned, sometimes even that is insufficient. 

That may be why on at least two plays in Oregon’s most recent win over Washington, three of the 11 Huskies on the field attempted to block Thibodeaux, who finished the game with three tackles and zero sacks for the second consecutive week. That uptick in attention is warranted. The game preceding those low-tackle outings was a sensational performance in which Thibodeaux racked up nine tackles and two sacks in a win over UCLA. Bruins coach Chip Kelly said afterward that he provided Thibodeaux with “every different look that you could possibly give him.” One of those looks involved a tight end fronting the nation’s preeminent pass rusher. On that play, after less than five seconds, Thibodeaux had Bruins QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson in what appeared to be an arm bar as the ball flopped around on the grass. 

Thibodeaux is tied for 116th among Football Bowl Subdivision players in sacks (4.0) and barely cracks the top 1,000 in tackles (28), long the antiquated barometers for defensive performance and well below the assumed stat line for an NFL team with high draft capital to spend. But context is key when appraising his 2021 performance.

An ankle sprain in the season opener cost Thibodeaux two-plus games, and he missed the first half of another due to a targeting penalty. In total, Thibodeaux has logged just 295 defensive snaps this season. There are 1,333 defenders at the FBS level who have accounted for more. The sophomore has played only 149 snaps in which he rushed the quarterback, which is tied for 377th nationally and ranks fourth on his own roster.

And yet, Thibodeaux is working on his third consecutive season in which he leads the Ducks in sacks and tackles for loss. He has accumulated 29 pressures, which is tied for 20th nationally, and has a defensive pressure rate of 19.5 percent, second-best in the country.1 It takes Thibodeaux an average of 2.49 seconds to pressure the QB, an improvement of 0.19 seconds from a season ago.

On a per-play basis, arguably no player wreaks more havoc on an offensive line than Thibodeaux. 

Thibodeaux brings the heat on opposing QBs

College football defenders who have pressured the quarterback on at least 15 percent of their pass-rushing plays, through Week 10 of the 2021 season

player Team Pass Rush PLAYS Def. Pressure Rate
Javon Solomon Troy 148 20.3%
Kayvon Thibodeaux Oregon 149 19.5
Nik Bonitto Oklahoma 153 18.3
Kingsley Enagbare South Carolina 175 18.3
Will Anderson Jr. Alabama 257 17.9
Aidan Hutchinson Michigan 213 17.8
Alex Wright UAB 155 17.4
Lonnie Phelps Miami (Ohio) 136 16.9
David Ojabo Michigan 152 16.4
Nick Hampton Appalachian St. 142 16.2
Tre Williams Arkansas 176 15.9
Will Mcdonald Iv Iowa State 180 15.6
Felix Anudike-Uzomah Kansas State 186 15.1
George Karlaftis Purdue 220 15.0

Players with at least 100 defensive pass-rushing plays this season are shown.

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

With its standout edge rusher on the field, Oregon’s team pressure rate spikes by more than 7 percentage points, opponent adjusted completion percentage falls from 68.0 percent to 63.9 percent, and opposing raw quarterback rating by 15.6 points.

In limited action, Thibodeaux has bolstered a draft profile that already had some team executives anxious to sign him. And if his draft projection holds, the highest-rated recruit in the history of Oregon football would be the first defensive lineman since Myles Garrett in 2017 and the fifth since 2000 to be selected No. 1 overall.

While Thibodeaux’s 2021 brilliance was the expectation, he has added new wrinkles to his game in his first season under a new scheme. With the departure of defensive coordinator Andy Avalos, Tim DeRuyter was hired to oversee the Oregon defense. DeRuyter coached Von Miller at Texas A&M and likened Thibodeaux to the eight-time Pro Bowler, and he has dramatically shifted Thibodeaux’s approach — so much so that ESPN broadcaster Mark Jones misidentified him as a linebacker over the weekend.

Maryland v Ohio State

Related: Our 2021 College Football Predictions

Thibodeaux plays the Joker position in DeRuyter’s defense, which allows him to line up inside and outside, in the three-point stance and, more frequently, standing upright in a two-point stance. One of Thibodeaux’s offseason priorities was to improve his open-field tackling. Perhaps as a result, his tackle percentage, or his share of completed tackles over his number of attempts, has jumped from 87.8 percent to 94.9 percent. “We feel he’s the most disruptive player in college football,” Oregon coach Mario Cristobal said in the offseason. “He’ll be used as such.”

Although it’s been in limited bursts, in different ways and on injured limbs, Thibodeaux is crashing into quarterbacks and solidifying his draft stock. 

Check out our latest college football predictions.

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  1. Among defenders with at least 100 pass rushes.

Josh Planos is a writer based in Omaha. He has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post.