Thibodeaux, Funa make for bright future on Oregon defense
LOS ANGELES — The Oregon Ducks are good now, having returned to national prominence by winning the Pac-12 and making the Rose Bowl, 2 p.m. Wednesday against Wisconsin.
Seniors have led the resurgence, but the future becomes brighter all the time, thanks to outstanding recruiting. Look no further than the defense, where true freshmen Kayvon Thibodeux and Mase Funa already have made an impact, and more stars will be joining the unit next season.
Thibodeaux has lived up to the hype as the No. 1 recruit in the country, according to ESPN.com. The 6-5, 240-pound defensive end from Los Angeles, after starting slowly while adjusting to college football and coordinator Andy Avalos' new defense, has been a stalwart. He was named Pac-12 freshman defensive player of the year and has nine sacks and 14 tackles-for-loss; he had 2.5 sacks in the Pac-12 title game and also blocked a punt against Utah.
"I didn't do too bad," said Thibodeaux, obviously underplaying his first season.
"My goal was 10 sacks, and I'm at nine now. But, after playing the season, I realize I could have done a lot more," he said. "For a freshman year, it's not as good as it could have been; in the beginning of the season I didn't contribute enough. I've got a lot of work to do."
When Gus Cumberlander was lost to an injury, Thibodeaux's playing time increased. He started five games.
"It's different when you're starting and playing," he said. "You get more reps, you get more time to actually feel comfortable, and I think that's kind of what helped me make a lot more plays."
Hype hasn't bothered Thibodeaux, who prepped at Oaks Christian High.
"I try to stay level-headed," he said. "Don't get too high, don't get too low."
In any other year, Funa would have been Oregon's ballyhooed recruit. He's regarded as Oregon's top-rated linebacker recruit ever, coming from Mater Dei High in Anaheim, California.
He was third among Pac-12 freshmen with four sacks and 8.5 tackles-for-loss. He plays the "Stud" position behind senior Bryson Young.
"I've had reps in every game, and coaches and experienced players helped me adjust to the college level," the 6-2, 260-pound Funa said. "I put it all on them to get to the point where I am right now."
He looks forward to more playing time, likely as Young's successor at "Stud," which is basically a playmaker who can play defensive end or linebacker.
"This first year I put my focus on the process, and to do the little things," Funa said.
Like Thibodeaux, Funa had to not only adjust to college football but also to the new coordinator and his multiple defenses.
"He's a smart guy," Funa said, of Avalos. "At first it didn't make sense to me, coming out of high school. Throughout this whole year I've learned that Coach Avalos knows what he's doing. The defense that he runs, it's crazy, all the little schemes coming together."
Funa looks forward to wreaking havoc with Thibodeaux next season as part of Oregon's defense, which could be even better. Players such as defensive linemen Jordon Scott and Austin Faoliu, linebacker Isaac Slade-Matautia and the entire secondary (Brady Breeze, Jevon Holland, true freshman Mykael Wright, etc.) are eligible to return, and the Ducks recently signed five-star linebackers Justin Flowe (6-2, 225, Upland, Calif.), arguably the best prep linebacker in the country, and Noah Sewell (6-2, 255, Saint George, Utah, brother of UO offensive lineman and Outland Trophy winner Penei Sewell).
And, the Ducks have plenty of other good young players (and five-star linebacker Keith Brown of Lebanon High has verbally committed as part of the 2021 class).
"It's an opportunity and blessing for all of us," Funa said. "Knowing the kind of guys behind me and next to me, it makes my job easier, I can just focus on my job."
Thibodeaux has helped Funa. "To see the work ethic he has, it's crazy," Funa said. "Grinding like he always does. He puts his heart into the game. Coming early in season, not a lot of people know he got moved from defensive line (meeting) room to linebacker room. Knowing him, I knew he'd adjust. You see that in games."
A reporter brought up to Thibodeaux that the Ducks featured a prominent Los Angeles prep legend in the previous Oregon-Wisconsin Rose Bowl in January 2012. De'Anthony Thomas had two long touchdown runs in UO's win.
"I know the Rose Bowl record is three sacks," Thibodeaux said. "God willing, I'll try to break it."
And, then it'll be on to next year and "training," he added.
"I had a great offseason (this year), and this offseason is going to be even more important," Thibodeaux said he is looking "to make a bigger leap in my weight, technique, game recognition."
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