IRVING, Texas — Nobody wanted Nigel Malone out of high school. And few wanted him when he came out of junior college.
Now, opposing teams are trying to find ways to avoid him.
Arkansas is the latest team that has to find a way to neutralize the Kansas State cornerback when the Razorbacks face the Wildcats in the Cotton Bowl on Friday at Cowboys Stadium.
Malone came to Manhattan last spring from City College of San Francisco, and in one season with the Wildcats, the junior has emerged as one of the top playmakers in the Big 12.
“He’s a playmaker and made some big plays throughout the season and during some critical times,” K-State junior linebacker Arthur Brown said Monday. “It’s awesome to be able to play with a guy who has a knack for doing that.”
Malone leads the Big 12 with seven interceptions this season and was named a second-team Walter Camp All-American, first-team All-Big 12 by the coaches and was a Thorpe Award semifinalist.
Not bad for a guy nobody wanted.
Even K-State defensive coordinator Chris Cosh has been surprised by Malone’s breakout season. Cosh knew Malone was a physical corner at 5-foot-10 and 176 pounds. But Malone’s ability to play the ball and jump routes was something Cosh never saw coming.
“When we watched tape, we always thought he was physical,” Cosh said. “Obviously, he has to play the ball or we wouldn’t have taken him as a corner, but we thought that’s probably where his asset was.
“But I didn’t know his ball skills were that good.”
Cosh said Malone has that something extra that can’t be coached, a natural instinct on the field that only the good ones have.
“He has that ‘it’ factor where he has a feel for the game,” he said. “He knows which spot to be in and he can anticipate the play before it happens.
“One thing about Nigel is that he makes the plays he’s supposed to make.”
Malone was tested early. On the opposite side was proven senior corner David Garrett. Going after the no-name newcomer on the other side seemed like a logical strategy for the opposition.
“David’s a very good corner and in the beginning they weren’t going to test him,” said Malone, who has 57 tackles and 16 pass-breakups this season. “So, eventually they started targeting me. I knew that would happen going into the season. It was just a matter of trying to take advantage of the opportunity they would give me to make the play.”
Malone did just that, as he wasted no time making his presence felt when he picked off two passes in the season opener against Eastern Kentucky. He intercepted another pass in Week 3 at Miami, while collecting seven tackles. Malone then picked off Texas Tech quarterback Seth Doege on Oct. 15 and returned it 24 yards for a touchdown on the first possession of the game, finishing with eight solo stops.
Against Oklahoma, Malone intercepted the Sooners’ Landry Jones twice and then followed that up with another pick two weeks later in the Wildcats’ 53-50 four-overtime win against Texas A&M.
“I just wanted to play as smart as I could and make plays when they did come after me,” Malone said.