Fans on both sides of Saturday’s game between Washington State and No. 11 Oregon will be eager to see how first-year starting quarterbacks Jayden de Laura and Tyler Shough fare coming off equally impressive college debuts.
NFL teams hoping to get stronger in the trenches at some point in the next two years will have their attention focused elsewhere.
Pound for pound, the best player on Washington State’s football team is a redshirt junior right tackle, Abraham Lucas, and Oregon’s may very well be a true sophomore defensive end, Kayvon Thibodeaux. At some point down the road, both will be paid handsomely for the way they can impact a football game at the line of scrimmage, but before that happens Lucas and Thibodeaux will try to give their team an advantage in the trenches Saturday at Martin Stadium, as the Cougars (1-0) host the Ducks (2-0) at 4 p.m. on Fox.
Lucas won’t line up across from Thibodeaux every time the Cougars set up on offense, but they’re expected to spar often. WSU may not snare its first upset of the Nick Rolovich era if Lucas doesn’t hold his ground against one of the country’s most aggressive pass-rushers. Likewise, Oregon could see its chances of a College Football Playoff bid go by the wayside if the Ducks’ skilled defensive end can’t find a way to maneuver past the huge right tackle and put pressure on the quarterback.
“You talk about a freshman really coming in and making an impact,” Rolovich said of Thibodeaux, the Pac-12’s Freshman Defensive Player of the Year in 2019 and a consensus Freshman All-American. “You can only anticipate him being bigger, stronger, faster, more seasoned as a pass-rusher and just as a college athlete. He’s definitely one that made a lot of noise last year by his play. Probably rightfully ranked recruiting-wise where he was, but it’s not like he’s the only you’ve got to worry about on this defense.”
Oregon’s program has established one of the top recruiting profiles in the country over the past decade, but the Ducks had never signed a player of Thibodeaux’s cachet until Dec. 19, 2018, when the No. 2 high school player in America placed his name on a dotted line. Thibodeaux’s .998 prospect grade from 247Sports.com was higher than that of Ducks Haloti Ngata (.996), Jonathan Stewart (.996) and Arik Armstead (.991), and his ceiling may also be higher than theirs.
Jamire Calvin, WSU’s redshirt sophomore “X” receiver, is familiar with Thibodeaux not only because both were highly regarded players out of Los Angeles, but because Thibodeaux’s head coach at Oaks Christian, Charles Collins, trains Calvin and other college receivers when they return home in the offseason.
“His size and athleticism – athleticism, especially,” Calvin said, speaking of what makes Thibodeaux great. “He’s a lot faster than he looks. Very strong, very fast, he’s a very talented player. Young guy, but he knows what he’s doing out there.”
Lucas didn’t make as much commotion on the recruiting trail, with a prospect grade of .871, and received just three offers, from WSU, California and Wyoming. Thibodeaux was a ready-made product by the time he arrived in Eugene. But not unlike most offensive linemen when they reach the Power Five level, Lucas spent a full year working on his body, gaining nearly 72 pounds from his senior season at Archbishop Murphy in Everett to his redshirt freshman season at WSU.
“Lucas is an enormous human being, just tremendous, long wingspan,” Oregon coach Mario Cristobal said earlier this week. “He’s a prototypical NFL offensive tackle. He can anchor. He can slide his feet. He’s got great foot and body quickness. He plays with power. He can redirect really well. He’ll hurt you in the run game, running and playing with power, and he can also get out there in the screen game and do a lot of things.
“Very experienced player, very patient in his pass blocking, and he uses his hands really well. It’s a great challenge both in the run and the pass game not only for Kayvon, but the rest of our defensive line.”
At 6-foot-7, 328 pounds, it’s probably an understatement to say Lucas has ideal NFL size. The tools he’ll gain as a run-blocker in Rolovich’s offense could make him a more intriguing prospect than former Cougar left tackle Andre Dillard, the first offensive lineman in school history to be drafted in the first round.
Pro Football Focus considered Lucas the best pass-blocking offensive tackle as a sophomore, one year after he collected many of the same Freshman All-American accolades Thibodeaux did in 2019. During Lucas’ freshman season, the highest compliment the right tackle received came from Dillard, who called his young teammate “some kind of robot or demigod or something,” adding, “he’s just the most naturally talented, athletic kid I’ve seen since I’ve been here.”
Two years later, Lucas will have an opportunity to show how he’s fused natural talent and genetically derived athleticism with experience and wisdom gained from 26 starts on WSU’s offensive line. Lucas and fellow tackle Liam Ryan managed to stymie another elite Pac-12 pass-rusher from the state of Oregon in the season opener, holding the Beavers’ Hamilcar Rashed Jr. to two tackles and no tackles for loss, and de Laura was sacked once.
Those who don’t think Rashed is the conference’s most disruptive player probably give the nod to Thibodeaux, who led the nation in fourth-quarter sacks last season and set a Pac-12 Championship Game record with 2.5 sacks against Utah.
“I can’t say this is how Abe is thinking,” Rolovich said, “but Abe’s obviously got the ability, in my opinion, to play at the next level, so I think he would be welcoming challenges like this and opportunities to prove against a high-level, elite pass-rusher. That’s a good opportunity for him to show who he is.”
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