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July 24, 2007
SAN ANTONIO ? The Thorpe Award goes through the Big 12.
Kansas cornerback Aqib Talib would like you to know that.
The award presented to the best defensive back in the country has been won by a Big 12 player in five of the past six years. The Thorpe could find its home in the Big 12 once again with Talib and others leading the way.
With Aaron Ross and Michael Huff, Texas has claimed the last two Thorpe Awards. Oklahoma also earned two since the turn of the century with Derrick Strait in 2003 and Roy Williams in 2001. Kansas State's Terence Newman won it in 2002.
"The Thorpe has been in the Big 12 for a while, so we should look at it as all of us being on one team and let's keep the Thorpe in the Big 12," Talib said Monday from Big 12 Media Days. "I look at is as my turn and I take it from Aaron Ross and take it home this year."
Who is to argue the trend won't continue? Talib is only one of several candidates in the conference who could take home the award.
With four returning starters, Oklahoma could have one of the best defensive backfields it has had under Bob Stoops.
Reggie Smith is the preseason Big 12 defensive player of the year after intercepting three passes a year ago. He has the versatility to play either cornerback or safety and the speed to return punts.
But he'll have stiff competition in his own secondary with underrated cornerback Marcus Walker, who also had three interceptions and a touchdown last season.
"Marcus and Reggie, I don't like going against them," Oklahoma receiver Malcolm Kelly said. "It's just how we raise them here, I guess. We've always had a lot of athletes in the Southern region. I guess a lot of gifted athletes just take it and run with it."
Neither Smith nor Walker even led the Sooners in interceptions. That would be safety Nic Harris with four.
But Oklahoma doesn't corner the market on top defensive backs. Colorado returns cornerback Terrence Wheatley, who had five interceptions and 11 pass deflections in his first full season after missing 2005 with wrist injuries.
Kansas State also brings back hard-hitting safety Marcus Watts, a preseason All-Big 12 selection. And teammates say Nebraska cornerback Zack Bowman, out since March with a torn patellar tendon in his right knee, could be in the mix as well, if healthy.
"Zack is a great cornerback," Nebraska receiver Terrence Nunn said. "He's like Talib. He has long arms and is unbelievably fast and his coverage skills are great. He's right up there with the best of them."
It's anyone's guess why the Big 12 has had this run of defensive backs, but it's no coincidence that award season favors winning teams.
Huff won the Thorpe on a team that won the national championship. Oklahoma's Strait won it on a team that played for the title while Texas' Ross and Oklahoma's Williams each won it the year after helping their teams to national championships.
"There are a lot of good defenses in this league, too," Kansas coach Mark Mangino said. "For several years you've had a team in this conference playing for national championships. They all had great defenses. Maybe it's that more than anything."
Big Thorpe Conference
Five of the past six winners of the Jim Thorpe Award, given to the nation's best defensive back, have come from the Big 12 Conference. Here are the winners since 2001:
2001: Roy Williams, Oklahoma
2002: Terence Newman, Kansas State
2003: Derrick Strait, Oklahoma
2004: Carlos Rogers, Auburn
2005: Michael Huff, Texas
2006: Aaron Ross, Texas
First-year Iowa State coach Gene Chizik coached the last three Thorpe Award winners ? Ross and Huff while serving as co-defensive coordinator at Texas, and Carlos Rogers as Auburn's defensive coordinator in 2004.
The Stoops brothers ? Bob at Oklahoma and his former defensive coordinator, Mike, now at Arizona ? have sent more than their fair share of defensive backs to the NFL.
"Maybe they teach us how to backpedal a little better," Talib said. "I have no idea."
At Kansas, Talib could be the leading candidate to win the award this year, but he has adversity other contenders in the conference won't have to face ? a struggling team.
Last year, Kansas went 6-6 and ranked last in the nation in pass defense despite six interceptions and 22 pass breakups from Talib.
"We just want to make the biggest jump in NCAA history from last to first," Talib said. "I never turn down a challenge."
David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.