STILLWATER — Jim Thorpe Award representatives were spotted in the press box of Boone Pickens Stadium for Oklahoma State's dominating victory over Baylor.
They weren't locked in on the ball.
They were locked in on Justin Gilbert, visibly perking up whenever he entered the game.
Gilbert played sparingly that night, protecting the shoulder he had injured at Texas the previous week. That may have made those reps antsy at times, but the Cowboy cornerback had clearly already made an impression.
Gilbert is now a finalist for the award given to the nation's best defensive back, earning a trip to Orlando where the winner will be announced at Thursday night's Home Depot College Football Awards show. And the recognition provides a tangible signal of Gilbert's turnaround 2013 season.
“With Justin, his play in the last several weeks of the season just kind of elevated him to where he was in consideration,” Jim Thorpe Award Association president Eddie Griffin said.
Gilbert was not on this summer's watch list for the Thorpe Award, which, frankly, made perfect sense.
He was coming off a disappointing junior season, where his freakish athleticism and blazing speed suddenly didn't translate to production on the field. He did not record an interception and allowed a bevy of catches while playing soft coverage.
So Gilbert passed on the NFL Draft and returned for his senior season. He concentrated on improving elements of his game like footwork, breaking back to the ball when playing off the receiver and gaining a better understanding of the entire defense.
Cue a return of Gilbert's impact playmaking ability, where he's zoomed up NFL mock draft boards and thrived in OSU's more aggressive scheme that takes advantage of his physical skills in coverage. He finished the regular season tied for fifth in the nation with six interceptions — including two returned for touchdowns — while adding 40 tackles, seven pass breakups and one quarterback hurry.
Yet Gilbert was left off the list of 15 semifinalists for the Thorpe Award released in late October. Griffin stressed that the committee's behind-closed-doors list is actually quite fluid, and that it's not entirely unusual for a player not on a semifinalist list to sneak into finalist contention with a strong final month.
That certainly happened with Gilbert, when he tallied two interceptions against the Longhorns, including one returned 43 yards for a score.
Still, Gilbert was surprised when cornerbacks coach Van Malone broke the news that he was heading to Orlando.
“It was totally unexpected,” Gilbert said. “From not being on the top 15, the semifinal list. Just to make that jump, for me, was an impressive jump.
“I think it really came down to me making plays, and those guys up front allowing me to make those plays. The defensive line getting tremendous pass rush on the quarterback and just me making breaks on the ball. Everybody's doing their job.”
Gilbert has stiff competition for the award in Florida State's Lamarcus Joyner and Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard. Both lead squads that are conference champions and rank in the top 6 in the nation in scoring defense, total defense and passing defense.
And Gilbert's final two games — where he was slowed by that shoulder injury and could not corral a near-interception that would have clinched a Cowboy win in Bedlam — may impact his chances of winning.
Regardless, though, Gilbert called his subpar 2012 season a “minor setback for a major comeback.” Sitting amongst college football's best players, as a contender for the Thorpe Award, proves he's accomplished that goal.
“There's a lot of good (defensive backs) out there,” Griffin said. “Being from Oklahoma, we're glad that Justin Gilbert made the finalist list.”
THORPE AWARD FINALISTS
Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert is a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award given annually to the nation's best defensive back.
Here's a look at the other two finalists
Lamarcus Joyner, safety, Florida State
Led the Seminoles with five sacks and finished second on the team with 64 tackles, including 6.5 for loss. Also added two interceptions, four pass breakups, three quarterback hurries and three forced fumbles to anchor a team that led the nation in scoring defense (10.7 points per game) and passing defense (152 yards per game).
Darqueze Dennard, cornerback, Michigan State
Finished with four interceptions and 10 pass breakups for the nation's leader in total defense (248.2 yards per game). Also added 59 tackles (2.5 for loss), five quarterback hurries and two forced fumbles.