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.
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.