When cornerback Malcolm Jenkins listed his primary reasons for returning to Ohio State for his senior season, among those at the top was winning the Jim Thorpe Award and being remember as the greatest corner in school history.
He might not go down as the all-time best at OSU – although his name is certainly in the conversation after four great seasons as a starter for the Buckeyes – but he was rewarded with the Thorpe Award he so coveted Thursday night at the Home Depot ESPNU College Football Awards show in Orlando.
The Ohio State captain was honored with the award given annually to the nation's top defensive back over USC junior safety Taylor Mays and Tennessee sophomore safety Eric Berry, who was expected by many to win the award after taking home SEC Defensive Player of the Year this season.
Jenkins on the other hand is a three-time, first team All-Big Ten selection who earlier this month was named to the first team All-America team by the Football Coaches Association of America (FCAA) and is expected to be a consensus first-team All-American when all is said and done (the Associated Press releases later this month).
Earlier this week Jenkins said it was an honor just to be nominated as a finalist for such a prestigious award, but Thursday he admitted it was very nerve-wracking to sit in the audience in Orlando waiting to see if his name would be called.
"Well, when they announced the award winner, first I was surprised and then a sigh of relief. It's really nerve-wracking to sit there through the whole show because our award was one of the last ones announced," Jenkins said in a statement. "And those were not just two fantastic players who were the other finalists, but really nice guys as well."
Jenkins passed up the opportunity to be a first round pick in the NFL Draft after last season and all he did as a senior was secure his place as the top cornerback prospect and a top 10-15 pick in this year's draft. The New Jersey native finished the regular season with 54 tackles (32 solo), three interceptions, nine pass break-ups, three forced fumbles, two blocked punts, 3.5 tackles-for-loss and one sack.
He shared the team's Bill Willis Award for outstanding defensive player with senior linebacker James Laurinaitis – who was also in attendance Thursday – and the Arnie Chonko Award for top defensive back with junior safety Kurt Coleman. Although the team MVP award went to tailback Chris Wells, one could have made quite the case for Jenkins as well.
With the award, Jenkins joins former Buckeye cornerback Antoine Winfield as the only two players in school history to win the Thorpe Award. Winfield was Ohio State's team MVP in 1997 when he led the Buckeyes with 100 tackles as a junior. He won the award the following season when he made 75 tackles, despite not making an interception, and was selected with the 23rd pick in the first round of the NFL Draft by the Buffalo Bills.
"It's just an incredible honor, because of guys like Antoine Winfield who have won this award in the past, and also because of Jim Thorpe, who was one of a kind and a pioneer in history," Jenkins said. "I work every day to improve as a player and when I came back for my senior season, the chance to be a part of an award like this was one of the dreams I had. Thanks to my coaches and teammates, I have been blessed to get that opportunity. I take pride in my work as a football player and this is truly an honor."
After failing to repeat as the Butkus Award winner earlier this month (this year's award to went to Aaron Curry of Wake Forest), Laurinaitis missed out on the Bednarik Award Thursday as it went to USC linebacker Rey Maualuga.
Laurinaitis could still win the Lott Award Saturday in Orange County, Calif. but he faces Curry as well as Brian Orakpo of Texas – who earlier captured the Bronko Nagurski and Vince Lombardi Awards – and Myron Rolle of Florida State.
For Jenkins, it was just an amazing experience to go through much of what Laurinaitis did the past two seasons when he captured the Nagurski Award as a sophomore in 2006 and the Butkus as a junior in 2007.
"This whole award trip has been an excellent experience, to visit with so many of the other great players and to be able to share this with my parents and my high school coach who came down to be with me," Jenkins said. "And thanks to everybody who is trying to congratulate me – I got so many texts on my phone during the show that I had to start deleting pictures and stuff so I would have room for the texts."
Now Jenkins has one more dream to fulfill at Ohio State - capturing a BCS bowl victory in the Fiesta Bowl against Texas.
Brandon Castel is a staff writer for BuckeyeGrove.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.