For Kayvon Thibodeaux, potential reunion with Lions’ Penei Sewell a ‘chance at greatness’

Detroit News

Livonia — On the surface, it might seem a little strange that a top NFL prospect flew across the country, to Metro Detroit, for an autograph signing months ahead of the NFL Draft. But there was a vision when the booking was made by representatives for Oregon defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux.

At the time, the Detroit Lions held the No. 1 slot in the draft, and for months, Thibodeaux was projected at that spot. Connecting the dots, why not get ahead of the curve and get him in front of the fan base that would be celebrating his addition come April?

Of course, some things have shifted in the time between then and now. The Lions won enough down the stretch that they’ll be picking second, behind the Jacksonville Jaguars. And while Thibodeaux remains convinced he’s still the best player in this draft, it’s less of a sure thing than it once was, with Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson appearing ahead of him on many current mock drafts.

So, in a way, Sunday’s signing at Pro Sports Zone at Laurel Park Place still might end up serving its originally intended purpose. More than 100 autograph seekers, many wearing Lions gear, came to have hats, jerseys and helmets signed by the gregarious and engaging Thibodeaux, who might be looking for a place to live the next time he’s in town.

Spend a couple of hours around Thibodeaux and you can discern quite a bit about the man. He’s good with people, he’s oozing with confidence in both his physical abilities and who he is as a person, he’s a critical thinker and cares about a whole lot more than just football.

During an exclusive interview following the autograph signing, he listens intently to each word of the questions being asked, wanting to carefully phase his responses, while also showing no hesitation to reject the premise of the query.

Former college teammate Penei Sewell — who thrived as Detroit’s first-round pick this past season —  recently noted Thibodeaux is a typical Californian, exhibiting a laid-back demeanor. Asked how that meshed with being a dominant defense player in a physical sport, he scoffed at the notion the two were mutually exclusive.

“What I don’t understand about people who analyze football, how can a personality dictate a play style,” Thibodeaux said. “Because I’m a calm person, because I’m laid back and I like to have fun, how does that dictate how I play the game? So I have a lot of people look at me like I’m California cool, but I am poised and I’m very strategic with how I play. I’m also relentless.”

That certainty shows up in his college film, where the 6-foot-5, 255-pounder racked up seven sacks and nearly 50 total quarterback pressures in 10 games last season.

The idea of pairing up with Sewell in Detroit definitely carries appeal.

It’s amusing, given he’s just a couple of months older, but Thibodeaux views the Lions offensive tackle like a big brother. That might have something to do with where they were on Oregon’s depth chart the one year they played together in 2019. Sewell started and was one of college football’s best players as a true freshman, while Thibodeaux was a second-string defensive end (even though he ended up setting the school’s freshman record for sacks that year).

The way Thibodeaux tells it, that overlapping year was the most important to his development as a player to date. He figures it only stands to reason the two would continue to push each other to new levels if paired again.

“I think it will be another chance at greatness,” Thibodeaux said. “I think me and him, as a collective, we want to be great. I feel like having us back on the same team, back in the same room, back on that same mission, it will take our grind to the next level.

“Obviously, Penei’s grind is already at the highest level it could be, and mine is too, but I feel like when you go against a guy you really know and you really have that factor of getting better, having that real respect for each other and really wanting each other to get better, that would take us to the next level.”

Off the field, Thibodeaux has an entrepreneurial spirit and a philanthropic heart. He’s part of the first wave of college athletes who were able to cash in on their name through NIL licensing, where he explored some unique paths of capitalizing on his marketability beyond the traditional paths. That included partnering with Nike to release non-fungible tokens and even launching his own cryptocurrency, $JREAM, named after his foundation that works to educate and empower underprivileged youth.

This September, Thibodeaux plans to commit $250,000 to scholarships for 25 middle-school students, further fulfilling that mission.

“I think education is the pillar of anyone’s success,” he said. “You talk about what can hinder someone’s life and it’s access to knowledge. If I can even that playing field in any way, I’ll be on the right path.”

Detroit obviously offers plenty of opportunities to further the cause. Jason Cabinda, the Lions’ reigning Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee, is a shining example of the impact a player can have with local youth.

Of course, that’s getting ahead of ourselves. There’s plenty to be sorted out between now and the draft, and, as noted, the even-confident Thibodeaux still has eyes on going No. 1 overall to the Jaguars.

“People say I’m top-two, but I’m not No. 2,” Thibodeaux said. “I’m not going to lie to you. I’m not going to make it seem like I wouldn’t be grateful to be drafted by the No. 2 team, but I would just feel like the work that I put in, it deserves to be No. 1.”

As for Hutchinson, the two don’t have a personal relationship, but Thibodeaux has admired his counterpart’s game from afar.

“Great film, great technique, great kid,” Thibodeaux said. (Shoot), he’s the only person (being talked about) above me, so he’s got to be good. I don’t know, let the chips fall where they may when it comes to other players.”

Between now and April’s draft, he’ll have a chance to state his case via the scouting combine, his pro day and individual meetings with the teams at the top of the draft who will have a shot to add the gifted edge rusher.

“Bigger, faster, stronger, smarter,” Thibodeaux said about his plans for the next couple of months. “I feel like I can’t give you the secrets because I don’t want anybody else to hear the secrets, but I feel like I’m doing everything in my power. If I’m not the No. 1 pick, I’ll be able to sleep comfortably at night knowing I did everything in my power to be.”

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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