It was as if one of the most famous messages that Lawrence Taylor used to fire up his Giants teammates had traveled through a 35-year time warp and stuck in Kayvon Thibodeaux’s ear.
As Thibodeaux ran at a GPS-clocked speed of 20.58 miles per hour last Sunday to chase down Jaguars running back Travis Etienne and momentarily prevent a touchdown against the Giants defense, outside linebackers coach Drew Wilkins thought of an NFL Films clip from 1987, in which Taylor is heard saying, “Let’s go out there like a bunch of crazed dogs!”
“That’s playing like a crazed dog right there,” Wilkins said before practice Friday. “You appreciate that kind of effort from play to play. Persistent pursuit of the football is outstanding.”
Wilkins was not comparing Thibodeaux to the greatest defensive player of all time. Thibodeaux already knew of Wilkins’ comment by the time he was approached in the locker room and he good-naturedly pointed out that Wilkins “did not mean to say that! He was just joking!” The truth is Taylor probably would’ve welcomed Thibodeaux as a teammate when the film showed the 6-foot-5, 258-pound rookie outrunning defensive backs to wrap up a 4.45-second 40-yard dash speedster.
“There has been a mentality set here a long time ago by the greats,” Thibodeaux said, “and it’s up to us to keep that going.”
One week after he clinched a victory with a flashy strip sack that led to a fumble recovery, Thibodeaux did the dirty work. He covered 67.1 yards to catch up to Etienne — the 12th-longest run for a tackle in the NFL this season, according to NextGenStats. By comparison, Saquon Barkley’s fastest ball-carrier speed this season is 21.11 miles per hour.
“We always preach 11 hats to the ball, and sometimes you can be far away from it but you can still make a play,” Thibodeaux said. “It’s trusting my other guys, but not really leaving the job to them, knowing it’s going to take all of us.
“You never know … but when the time does come I have to take off and make sure I catch him. I’d hate to be that guy running and you don’t catch him. I just wish we got him down sooner.”
What’s next, on Sunday against the Seahawks? The Giants expect that effort level from one of their highest-paid players to be contagious.
“If you have a guy that’s going to be a leader — he’s already established as a leader — but puts that kind of thing on tape, it’s hard not to listen and say, ‘Here’s how you do it,’ ” defensive coordinator Wink Martindale said. “He understands the standard, and he’s been playing up to it.”
Thibodeaux’s first-step quickness also has been an advantage on speed rushes, but he isn’t getting the benefit of the doubt on what look like obvious holding penalties, as rookies should expect according to Martindale.
“I guess I have to sell it more,” Thibodeaux said. “The offense is selling trucks, so I have to get back on my game.”
The irony is that Thibodeaux’s effort — or perceived lack thereof on too many plays in college — was a popular predraft criticism. If not for those questions, he probably wouldn’t have been available when the Giants picked at No. 5.
“What it makes you appreciate is the guys in this building like [general manager] Joe Schoen and his crew,” Wilkins said. “We’ve got unbelievable scouts that filter through all of that and find out who the true player is, who the true person is. It’s such a thorough process. You find out what’s real — and he’s the real deal.”
Thibodeaux, a Los Angeles native who starred at Oregon, is returning to the West Coast for the first time as an NFL rookie, after studying old Pac-12 film this week to look for tendencies when he battled Seahawks rookie right tackle Abraham Lucas (Washington State). He will have some family in attendance at Lumen Field who already know what the Giants still are learning.
“That he loves the game of football, he’s a really good teammate, he’s smart, and he gives great effort,” head coach Brian Daboll said. “Those things are very important. Obviously, we knew he was talented. I think his intangibles have been very good for us, and they’re going to need to continue to be.”
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