How will Utes counter elite Oregon defenders Kayvon Thibodeaux and Noah Sewell?
Thibodeaux has had at least one sack in a game 13 times during his career, while Sewell returns to his home state when the Ducks visit Utah Saturday
Utah left tackle Bamidele Olaseni has watched plenty of film of Oregon’s superstar defensive end, Kayvon Thibodeaux, who is considered to be a top pick in the 2022 NFL draft. Some think Thibodeaux could be the No. 1 overall selection.
Utes on the air
No. 3 Oregon (9-1, 6-1)
at No. 23 Utah (7-3, 6-1)
Saturday, 5:30 p.m. MST
Radio: ESPN 700
What are Olaseni’s impressions of Thibodeaux as the No. 23 Utes prepare to host the No. 3 Ducks Saturday (5:30 p.m. MST, ABC)?
“He’s just a world-class athlete. You don’t see a lot of people like him walking around,” Olaseni said. “Long arms, great get-off, intelligent, understands the game at a crazy level. He’s a great athlete and he’s proven it. It’s going to be fun.”
Thibodeaux, a 6-foot-5, 258-pound junior, won both the Pac-12 defense and defensive line awards this week. He’s the only player — besides former Ute Bradlee Anae — to win both awards in the same week since the defensive line award was created in 2019.
In a 38-24 victory over Washington State last week, Thibodeaux had six tackles and two sacks. He’s had at least one sack in a game 13 times during his career.
The top two candidates for the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year award are Thibodeaux and Utah’s Devin Lloyd.
The Ducks’ defensive coordinator, Tim DeRuyter, made it clear how highly he regards Thibodeaux.
“I think he’s the best defensive player in college football right now,” he told reporters in Eugene this week. “It’s just rare to compare him to anybody. You have to take him into account. He’s equally effective in the run game as he is in the pass game.”
Thibodeaux’s performance last Saturday moved him into a tie for 10th in program history with 18 career sacks. Thibodeaux has 33.5 tackles for loss, which ranks top five among Power Five players since the start of the 2019 campaign.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham knows all about stellar defensive line play and he is impressed with Thibodeaux.
“I just know that he’s really good and really explosive. He’s got the whole package,” he said. “They say he’s a top-five pick, maybe the top pick in the draft. He’s got height at 6-foot-5-plus, 260. He’s got great get-off. That’s really the key to an edge rusher is get-off. That’s the No. 1 criterion you look for in an edge rusher, the No. 1 asset an edge rusher needs to be a great one. And he’s athletic. I mean, he can play linebacker if they wanted him to. He could very easily do that.”
When it comes to preparing for an edge rusher like Thibodeaux, Whittingham said that’s difficult to do.
“To replicate him in practice, that’s impossible,” he said. “If we had that guy, that guy would be leading the nation in sacks. We just don’t have that guy right now.”
Oregon coach Mario Cristobol has said Thibodeaux has the potential to be a star at the next level.
“Big, big future for him,” he said. “I mean as big as it gets. The sky is the limit.”
Thibodeaux was one of the first college football players to capitalize on the NIL bill that was passed last summer. He cashed in with a six-figure deal with a partnership with Nike.
The Ducks also have another outstanding defensive end in Bradyn Swinson, who has notched three sacks this season.
“They’re just great players,” Olaseni said about his challenge this week. “I just have to go and, like I’ve done every single week, do film study, rehab, preparation and try to get better and try to prepare myself and do what I need to do.”
Meanwhile, Oregon has yet another elite defensive player in linebacker Noah Sewell, who was a five-star Orem High product. He was named the Deseret News’ Mr. Football in 2019.
Utah was among the many schools that recruited Noah Sewell. This season, the 6-foot-3, 251-pound Sewell has tallied a team-high 79 tackles and three sacks for the Ducks.
What does Whittingham like about Sewell’s game?
“Everything,” he said. “He’s got great size, 260 pounds, and he moves like a cat. Guys that big typically don’t move that well. But he’s outstanding. His lateral movement and quickness. He’s instinctive. He’s a big-play guy, always seems to be around the ball. Always. What you look for in a middle linebacker, he embodies. He’s got the whole package.”
Sewell and Thibodeaux will try to shut down Utah’s offense, which leads the Pac-12 in league games in scoring and total offense.
Thibodeaux suffered an ankle injury that sidelined him for much of September. He served a targeting suspension during the first half against Cal.
But when Thibodeaux is healthy, and on the field, he’s dominant.
“It’s really impressive to see him work during the week and show up on Saturday and have it be as productive,” DeRuyter said of Thibodeaux. “We’re a much better defense obviously, when he’s on the field … We have to have him playing at his best.”
DeRuyter knows Utah’s offense poses challenges.
“Our hands are gonna be full trying to do some things to disrupt the flow of what they’re trying to do. KT needs to have a big game for us to do that,” he said. “They’re a very physical running team. Their pass game primarily spun off of their run game. They’re a power downhill football team and they’re very physical up front. They’ve got backs that are very physical, and ever since they’ve got (Cam) Rising in at quarterback, they’ve really been productive.”
Cristobol loves Thibodeaux’s relentlessness.
“The best part about KT is that he just keeps coming. No matter what, he just keeps coming. He doesn’t want to come out of the game. He doesn’t need to come out of the game,” Cristobol said. “He just wants more and that’s infectious. That permeates throughout the sideline, the locker room and everything else. He just gives every ounce that he’s got. The guy is one of a kind.”