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September 14, 2011Nigel Malone isn't exactly what you'd call expressive. His words are always served on a monotone platter, and when he speaks them, his hands remain clasped in at his waist. The mitts on display aren't strikingly large nor do they have some sort of visible aura surrounding them. In this setting, it's easy for them to sneak by unnoticed.
Have him change out of the purple polo and slacks in which he's currently dressed in favor some pads and a jersey, though, and the once-idle extremities become the center of attention. Throw a football in his direction and, in all likelihood, the Kansas State cornerback will find a way to corral it.
"I just try to go out there and make plays any way I know how," Malone said. "I really think the way you practice is the way you play. When you're fast to the ball, plays happen. Even when I was a wide receiver, I always just thought of myself as a cornerback that could catch."
Catching, as it turns out, is what he does. Always has been. He did it two weeks ago to the tune of two interceptions in his Wildcat debut. He did it in junior college on the way to All-NorCal Conference honors. He did it often enough in high school to set school records for both receiving yards and interceptions. But most impressive is his knack for doing it with style.
"My favorite catch ever probably came at a juco practice," Malone said as he began to act the play out on the carpet inside the Vanier Football Complex. "I caught eight interceptions in that one practice. I had one where a guy was standing in front of me, and I had to turn and reach around his head like this to catch it with one hand in front of his facemask. That's probably my favorite one."
He's using a reporter as an opposing player to demonstrate his highlights now. Dig deeper, and it's easy to see what's got him so excited. See, Malone has never been the fastest or most athletic player on the field -- not even in his youth. It's a fact he won't attempt to dispute. At every stop, though, his most notable attribute made enough of a stir to render other things irrelevant.
Even his hometown newspaper used his defining trait to help ring bells inside the minds of readers the day he committed to K-State.
"He may be best remembered for routinely making highlight-reel catches -- often with one hand," a line in the Feb., 2011 story in the Manteca Bulletin read.
So just how was the boy from Golden State whose golden hands caught everything in sight unable to haul in a shred of recruiting interest coming out of high school? That's a question those who remember the process still struggle to answer.
"I pushed for Nigel quite a bit," Sierra (Calif.) High School coach Jeff Harbison said. "I pushed to get Nevada involved, but for some reason, he just went unnoticed. That happens in California."
Sacramento State, an FCS program, was one of few schools that showed any semblance of interest in Malone's services as a high school senior, but never extended an offer. Instead, the Hornets chose to present one to his high school teammate, Avery White. The decision was one Harbnison never fully understood, and when he advised Sac State wide receivers coach Daniel DaPrato to pursue Malone instead, his suggestion was met with a hard "no" and an explanation.
When it's recited now, the latter part seems suspect. Especially when you consider White's inability to stay on the field because of injury and a short suspension.
"I had told DaPrato that if he was going to take one of my two kids, that Nigel was the one to take," Harbison recalls. "He explained to me that if he took a kid like Avery, a state hurdler, and it didn't work out, it would be no big deal. But if he took a kid like Nigel, with Nigel's size and Nigel's speed, it could be his job. That was the anecdote he used.
"Hopefully they're eating their words now."
A full-qualifier with no major scholarships to his name, Malone chose to pursue football at the junior college level. When he didn't get the kind of recruiting attention he wanted following his first season at City College of San Francisco, he decided to return. And while he played solely defensive back during those years, his hands were busy enough to finally draw interest from a few major programs.
"He's not Terence Newman, but he's not slow, either," Bill Snyder said of Malone, who chose the Wildcats over offers from New Mexico and Kentucky. "For him, it's his discipline and how he positions himself. The two interceptions he had (against Eastern Kentucky) were about being in position, and he made a nice catch on the second one, too. That ball came directly over his head. Receivers have trouble with those kinds of balls."
Malone isn't likely to play wide receiver again. It's a fact he's come to terms with. These days, he calls cornerback a natural fit for his skill set. But at practice, when the seats in the stadium sit empty, he runs himself through voluntary drills.
Love the defensive side of things as he may, for him, quitting cold turkey has been difficult.
"As a corner, you kinda lose it because you don't get to touch the ball as much," he said. 'That's why I'm out there catching so many balls at practice. I like to keep my hands familiar."
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