Nigel Malone didn’t know what to say.
The Kansas State senior cornerback had just been asked about his reputation and how it might impact the way he plays this season. For years, he has responded to such questions with a go-to answer about proving everyone wrong. But that wouldn’t work this time.
Forget that Malone is a tad undersized at 5-foot-10, transferred to K-State from a junior college and was offered zero scholarship offers coming out of high school. Everyone respects him now. He led the Big 12 with seven interceptions last year and emerged as one of top defensive playmakers in the country.
Opposing teams will view him differently this season. Quarterbacks might not challenge him the way they did a year ago. Offensive coordinators might develop special plays to neutralize him. Things will be different.
So how will all that change his approach? Malone searched his mind, and, after a long pause, finally answered.
“I couldn’t really tell to you, to be honest,” Malone said. “I guess I’m going to go out there and just play.”
In other words, Malone is taking the simple approach. He isn’t used to this kind of attention and doesn’t want to overthink things — no matter how strange he might feel.
He wants to duplicate his debut season with the Wildcats. Maybe even top it. If he does, he could leave K-State as the program’s best cornerback since Terence Newman and end up on a NFL roster. If he doesn’t, he will be the college football equivalent of a one-hit wonder.
It’s a pressure-packed scenario for someone who faced no expectations a year ago, but K-State coach Bill Snyder is confident in Malone. So confident that he was hard on him during spring practices and is now issuing a challenge.
“It really rests on his shoulders,” Snyder said. “He needs to make a commitment to improving himself day in and day out, and not take it for granted that one good performance will follow another.”
That is Malone’s test. He has more experience now and is more familiar with his teammates, but that alone doesn’t ensure that he will put up better numbers than he did last season. After all, 58 tackles, 17 passes defended and seven interceptions are tough to top.
But he is a year wiser and a year stronger. He wants to use those attributes on the field with the same passion he did last season.
“I’m just making sure that I stay focused,” Malone said. “I’m trying not to get complacent about last year. Last year was fun, but it’s definitely a new year. It’s time to move on.”
One area he will try to improve is leadership. The main thing he provided last year was interceptions. They changed games and significantly helped K-State’s defense, but he wasn’t flawless. He didn’t make his teammates better.
Though he exceeded expectations, K-State’s secondary did not. The Wildcats surrendered too many big plays and allowed 263.3 passing yards per game. Malone got burned by his man a time or two.
“I want to be more consistent,” Malone said. “Turnovers are good, but I want to be a more consistent player overall, contributing to the defense more and just being a good teammate.
“Learning from our mistakes, that’s the biggest thing. We weren’t perfect by any sense of the imagination against the pass or the rush, but last year was last year. We have a chance to go back and look at some of those things that we weren’t so strong in and take the time to focus on everything.”
This season, he wants to help K-State’s defense do more, no matter how often quarterbacks throw his way. His reputation may have changed, but his desire hasn’t.
“I want to make it tough to throw the ball anywhere,” Malone said. “We will definitely try to duplicate and push even further than we did last year.”