Top NFL draft prospect Kayvon Thibodeaux steals moves, uses chess strategies to hone skill

INDIANAPOLIS -- Studying, stealing and strategy.

That's the way Kayvon Thibodeaux approaches rushing the passer. It worked pretty well for him at Oregon, so there's no reason for him to stop now. He's going to continue to relentlessly watch film of some of the NFL's best pass-rushers and copy what he's seeing so he can add it to his game.

And he's not shy about making sure everyone knows it, either.

"I kind of steal from everybody," Thibodeaux said Friday at the NFL scouting combine. "I'm a student of the game, so I don't really have a favorite [pass-rusher in the NFL now], but I just love to kind of steal ... a little bit of everybody and implement it in my game and start to keep growing."

It started with him watching clips on the internet of players like Willie McGinest when Thibodeaux was at Oaks Christian School in Westlake Village, California. During his three seasons at Oregon, he watched even more -- from players like Maxx Crosby, T.J. Watt, DeMarcus Ware, Chandler Jones and Von Miller.

When he saw a move that he liked or wanted to use, he'd work on it at the next practice -- especially if it was from Miller, whom the 6-foot-5, 258-pound Thibodeaux idolizes.

"If I don't do a move, I'm going to learn how to work that move and I'm going to learn how to get better at it," Thibodeaux said. "I'm going to implement it in practice and then I'm going to translate it to the game.

"... I'm a guy who can take it right off the film and I can take it right to the field, so I was able to do that a lot. Literally, on most of [Miller's] pass rushes, I took from the film to the field and it helped me tremendously."

Thibodeaux said he studied Miller's footwork and body lean and said that helped him be a much better stand-up rusher for the Ducks this past season, when he had seven sacks and 12 tackles for loss to go along with a career-high 49 tackles.

Thibodeaux, who said he was just a speed rusher in his first year at Oregon, said one of the things he learned by studying others was the importance of being strategic. He loves to play chess, and he compared the game to rushing the passer because you have to be thinking two or three moves ahead.

"I'm not the biggest guy, I'm not the strongest guy, and I'm not the fastest guy," Thibodeaux said. "Just like Von Miller, you have to figure out what's going to give you that edge, and for me my mind is what gives me that edge. I'm a chess player, so thinking moves ahead. How can I set the game and dictate what the offensive tackle does so I can get what I want out of the situation?

"... I mean, you know, chess is life and chess is football. You talk about doing your first move, and your first move is going to set up your second move, right? Then you got to think of your third move ahead, so when you talk about pass rush, I'm going to hit you with speed first. I always hit you with speed, speed, speed. And then that's going to set up my power moves, and then my power moves are going to set up my counter."

After being named the USA Today High School Football Defensive Player of the Year in 2018, Thibodeaux went on to become the Pac-12 defensive freshman of the year. He won the Morris Trophy -- given to the conference's best offensive and defensive linemen as selected by the players -- as a sophomore, and he was a unanimous All-American this past season. He had 19 sacks and 35.5 tackles for loss in 30 games at Oregon.

And now he's a candidate to be the first overall selection in next month's NFL Draft.

"I think the biggest thing I kind of want to articulate to the teams is that I'm really a student of the game, or I really love this game," Thibodeaux said. "It's done a lot for me. Football has taught me a lot. It's helped me grow a lot through my life. It'll be there 'til the day I die. ... No matter what else I do off the field, football is my main focus.

"Winning a Super Bowl, getting a yellow jacket, being defensive rookie of the year is on my list of goals."