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Thursday, November 8, 2001
Safety dance

By by Bruce Feldman
ESPN The Magazine

Forget the Heisman Watch. That stuff is all hype, inflated stats and offbeat CD-ROMs. This season's most compelling individual honors race is for the Thorpe Award. There hasn't been a season where there have ever been as many play-making safeties as this one. In addition, Texas corner Quentin Jammer has played just as well as you'd expect from a top-10 NFL draft pick.

The 6'1", 202-pound Jammer is a rarity, a shut-down corner with the size and hitting ability of a strong safety. Jammer leads the nation with 22 pass breakups and two weeks ago, he showed any NFL scouts who might be skeptical just how tough he is by locking up Missouri's talented Justin Gage. Gage came into the showdown fourth in the nation in receptions, and left having caught just two balls for 14 yards. This fall, the longest reception Jammer has allowed this year is 18 yards and that was in zone coverage against UNC. His longest reception allowed in man-to-man is eight yards. Granted, there is still a month of football left, but expect Jammer and Oklahoma's Roy Williams and Miami's Ed Reed to be the three finalists for the Thorpe.

Williams and Reed are the two best of an amazing crop of safeties, featuring Colorado's Mike Lewis, UCLA's Marques Anderson, Ohio State's Mike Doss, Stanford's Tank Williams and Florida's Marquand Manuel. The group illustrates just what the position means to a team's success these days.

The 6'1", 221-pound Williams, who I think should get Heisman consideration, is a hybrid linebacker-safety with a knack for changing games. Reed, a 6'0", 200-pound senior, is the nation's most underrated player. And he's probably been so for the last two seasons. He continues to pile up INTs (he has 19 in his career) at an amazing rate, which is the best reflection of just how sharp the guy is. "What does making all those interceptions mean? It means I study a whole lot of tape," Reed explains. "Teams have tendencies and what you want to do is put yourself in the right position to make plays."

He says the Thorpe Award wouldn't mean much to him. It did last year, and despite being a consensus all-American, Reed got shafted. He wasn't even selected as a finalist. "It was crazy," he says. "I felt like I should've been up there last year."

Reed understands Williams is probably the frontrunner this time around. He says he hasn't seen much of the OU star, but what he has seen has impressed him, although he doesn't see Williams as a DB. "In that Texas game, he was making plays," Reed says, "but he was making them as a linebacker."

Guys like Reed and Williams having such an impact reflects a new breed that has taken over the game. A big reason why these DBs have jumped into the spotlight is because the college game has changed in the last few years. Defensive coordinators are scheming more to confuse QBs into changing plays at the line. "It's become the most pivotal position (on the defense) because we have to change our alignment to fool the quarterback so that he does not audible the play another way," says Florida's Manuel.

The DCs are also bringing their safeties up into run support more, which explains why three of the top four tacklers in the Big East are DBs. So it's not an embarrassment for a defense to be led by a guy form the secondary in tackles. And don't be surprised if the nation's two best safeties are playing pivotal roles come Jan. 3's Rose Bowl.

· Regardless of what happens in Saturday's Miami-BC game, don't be surprised if the Eagles' Tom O'Brien emerges as a possible replacement should the Notre Dame job come open. Sources say O'Brien is one the ND brass likes. Other names that will get some airplay in the near future: Purdue's Joe Tiller, Northwestern's Randy Walker, Western Michigan's Gary Darnell and ABC's Terry Bowden.

· As for the Kansas vacancy, you can pretty much expect every OU coach short of Bob Stoops and Kelvin Sampson to get consideration with young DC Brent Venables sounding like a smart pick. Meanwhile at Cal, former ASU coach Bruce Snyder and D-II's Bob Biggs from Cal-Davis figure in the mix with Charlie Strong, the bright DC at South Carolina, also expected to get a look.

Bruce Feldman covers college football for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at bruce.feldman@espnmag.com.