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K-State's Malone captures success after others doubted ability

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Thursday, Jan. 5, 2012, at 1:34 p.m.
  • Updated Friday, Jan. 6, 2012, at 2:44 p.m.

ARLINGTON, Texas — Nigel Malone has a message for any high school football players who want to play at the college level but aren't getting recruited.

"If you want to do it, you can," Malone said.

He should know. Malone, a junior cornerback who made a huge impact on Kansas State's defense by making a Big 12-best seven interceptions this season, was so lightly recruited growing up in Manteca, Calif., that college coaches advised him to give up the sport.

"A lot of people told me I didn't have the talent to even come out and play junior-college football," Malone said.

Looking back, it sounds like hyperbole. In one season under K-State coach Bill Snyder, Malone has blossomed into the Wildcats' best defensive back. He makes big plays every game and finished the year as one of 15 semifinalists for the Thorpe Award and was named a second-team Walter Camp All-American.

Even at 5-foot-10 and 176 pounds, it seems impossible that a player like that could go virtually unnoticed by college recruiters. But it is true. Sacramento State, of the Football Championship Subdivision, wanted him as a walk-on. So did a handful of junior colleges. Those were his options.

The only recruiting visits he took occurred last offseason, when he was finished playing at City College of San Francisco and decided to take a look at New Mexico and K-State.

He is the polar opposite of junior linebacker Arthur Brown, who came out of Wichita East as a five-star recruit and had college coaches calling him every day.

"I try to live my five-star recruiting through him," Malone joked. "When I first got here, I asked what a couple of his visits were like, what the attention was like and how he handled it."

He still can't grasp what that would have been like.

"Only in my dreams," he said.

But things worked out for Malone. His grades were good coming out of high school, and they stayed good in junior college. All he needed to move up to the Division I level was for someone to notice him.

That happened when former K-State coach Ron Prince bumped into him at a practice in San Francisco. He quickly gained interest in the Wildcats, and that interest grew larger when Snyder returned as coach.

When K-State offered him a scholarship, he knew Manhattan was where he wanted to be. He passed up a recruiting trip to Kentucky to sign with K-State early.

He has been an all-conference player since, breaking up 16 passes and playing so well that opposing quarterbacks try to avoid him.

"He has that 'it' factor," K-State defensive coordinator Chris Cosh said. "He has a feel for the game. He knows what spot to be in. He anticipates being outside the realm of what we're doing. He makes the plays he's supposed to make. You sit there as a coordinator, he's over there and you don't have to worry about him. I appreciate that."

If he continues to play well as a senior, the NFL could become a possibility.

He's not sure if he can take his game to that level or not. But he's going to try. He already knows the approach he needs to take. It's the same one he used when college coaches tried to tell him football wasn't in his future.

"Stay focused, stay humble and get ready to work," Malone said.

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