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Oregon freshman Kayvon Thibodeaux latest Southern California star to head north

Kayvon Thibodeaux couldn’t get more than a few steps from the podium Friday morning. At the pre-Rose Bowl media day for Oregon’s defense, the youngest man in the room was also among the most recognizable. After completing his 30-minute Q&A inside a downtown hotel ballroom, the Ducks’ freshman defensive lineman was asked to stop for a photo on his way out the door.

The man with the camera — a bowl game staff member — didn’t know Thibodeaux’s jersey number (5) and had to double-check his position (defensive end). What he did know was that Thibodeaux was born and bred in Southern California — and is now making a name for himself far from home.

Back in town for Oregon’s Rose Bowl meeting with Wisconsin on Wednesday, Thibodeaux — who was named the Pac-12 defensive freshman of the year after recording 23 tackles, 14 for loss and nine sacks for the conference-title-winning Ducks — still fits the part of an L.A. kid. He has a stylish haircut, a high fade leading to long black curls. With L.A. Live visible through a window behind him Friday, he joked about how “nobody really came downtown” when he was growing up.

Southland players like him almost never used to leave home for college either.

The top-ranked California football recruit from 2013 to 2018 (according to 247Sports’ composite ranking) went to USC or UCLA. As Thibodeaux, who grew up in South L.A. and attended Oaks Christian High School in Thousand Oaks, cemented his status as the No. 1 in-state prospect for the 2019 class, early indications pointed to him joining the Trojans.

In March 2018, he told a USC recruiting site: “I can play anywhere, with anybody … but, [USC] being home, and having my home atmosphere around, that is a plus. Them having an education, it is a plus. Them being in California, it is a plus.”

USC coaches, Thibodeaux joked, “always say, ‘There’s no way I’m going to leave the backyard.’”

There are myriad reasons behind Thibodeaux’s spurning of USC. Miscommunication between the player and the school was reported. Coach Clay Helton’s job status during 2018’s 5-7 campaign was uncertain. USC wasincreasingly losing its grasp on its hometown market. And there was Oregon, perfectly positioned to pounce on Southern California’s suddenly shifting recruiting landscape.

Since Mario Cristobal’s arrival in Eugene — he was hired as the Ducks’ offensive coordinator in 2017, then promoted to head coach a season later — the Ducks have turned California into their own breeding ground.

In eight classes between 2010 and 2017, the Ducks signed 13 combined Top 25 players from the state. In Cristobal’s three years, they have signed 14 such recruits. After winning the Thibodeaux sweepstakes last season, they signed the state’s top-ranked prospect, linebacker Justin Flowe, again in this year’s recruiting class. Players who once looked like locks for USC and UCLA are increasingly beginning to look elsewhere.

“I feel like every guy is going to choose where they want to go because of their beliefs, and what they feel is best for them,” Thibodeaux said of Oregon’s Southern California pipeline. “But, I mean, it’s happening. We’ve got a lot of guys coming in who are going to help us. I’m loving it.”

Beyond the team’s neon uniforms and rise to national prominence, the California-centric makeup of Oregon’s coaching staff might serve as the best explanation for its recruiting prowess. Cristobal is from the East Coast, but both his coordinators and four other assistants have previous college or high school coaching experience in the state

“There’s a lot of familiar faces from recruiting, from being from the same area,” said first-year defensive coordinator Andy Avalos, a native of Corona and former assistant at Corona High. “I know a bunch of these [Southern California high school coaches]. A lot of these guys are the same as me, guys I played with and against in high school who are now becoming coaches.”

Senior Oregon linebacker Troy Dye, a recruit out of Norco High, ended up in Eugene only after being overlooked by the local powerhouse programs. He could have never imagined seeing raw California talents such as Thibodeaux alongside him with the Ducks.

“That’s a tribute to the coaches, a tribute to the recruiting,” Dye said. “This is a hotbed of talent and they’ve done a really good job … I’m super excited for the future of the program. I know there’s a lot of good pieces coming in.”

Thibodeaux might prove to be the poster boy. After a self-admitted hesitant start to the season — “I didn’t know about college football, how hard it was,” he said — the 6-foot-5, 242-pound pass rusher found his footing down the stretch.

He delivered arguably his best performance in the Pac-12 championship game, collecting 2½ sacks in Oregon’s defensively dominant 37-15 win over Utah. He’s hoping to reach his season goal of 10 sacks in Pasadena, and Friday was able to reference the Rose Bowl sack record (three, accomplished most recently by Oregon’s Kenny Rowe in 2010) by heart.

However, Thibodeaux said he expects to have about 10 family members in attendance on New Year’s Day. Rose Bowl tickets, he pointed out, are expensive. Plus, Oregon’s road win over USC in the Coliseum in early November felt like a truer homecoming.

“That was fun,” he said. “That had been more hyped than this probably will. Not because this is the Rose Bowl or whatever. But that was SC. I grew up across the street. It was like I was really at home.”

Asked if USC was his dream school as a kid, Thibodeaux said college wasn’t even a dream, let alone USC.

“For a lot of kids who come from where I come from, you don’t even have the hopes of college,” he said. “So once that became a reality. It was more like, where do I see myself reaching my goals?”

In the past, for a player like Thibodeaux, or Flowe, or any top Southland recruit, the answer would have almost certainly been USC or UCLA. But times are changing. Thibodeaux’s career might be encapsulating the new norm.

“There was a lot of speculation about where we should have went, why we went here,” he said. “But the proof is in the pudding. We’re making great things happen.”

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