The Jim Thorpe Award announced its preseason watch list on Friday, and in it, there are 35 defensive backs vying for glory in 2012. Thirty-five defensive backs does seem a little light, especially considering that the Rimington Trophy put 51 centers on its watch list (and there aren't exactly four centers on the field at any given time), but that just means this watch list means more than just "every decent returning starter."
So with that in mind, don't be disappointed that the Big Ten landed only four defensive backs on the Thorpe Award watch list. Only the SEC had more, and those guys topped out at five.
No, the real story here is that Michigan State placed two players on the list by itself: safety Isaiah Lewis and cornerback Johnny Adams. Only three other teams managed that honor, and they're not exactly slouches: Florida State, LSU and Southern Cal. Pretty rarified air, talent-wise, for the Spartans in 2012.
The Jim Thorpe Association's full list of watch list members is here if you're really interested in reading 31 names of non-Big Ten players.
As for the Spartan nominees themselves, strong safety Isaiah Lewis is the best in the Big Ten. Granted, the class isn't especially strong this year, so all he had to do was be better than Jordan Kovacs to get that nod. Still, Lewis makes plays all over the field, and if his tackle total is high enough, he's going to get noticed by voters.
And yet, even though Lewis is the best strong safety in the conference, he may not be the best defensive back on his own team. Cornerback Johnny Adams is also a nominee, and he's the perfect cornerback for this loaded Spartans defense. Even though he's not big—5'11", 175—he's physical enough that he can play press coverage, which disrupts timing on the outside, and he's fast and agile enough that he won't get scorched off the line if he's playing up close.
Michigan State's pass-rush isn't going to give quarterbacks a whole lot of time this year; the way Adams plays, QBs probably won't be able to wait for their star wideouts to get open very often.
As non-Spartans go, Ohio State safety C.J. Barnett also made the list. Barnett led the Buckeyes in tackles in 2011, although that was every bit a function of the disappointing play of the Ohio State front seven as anything else. Still, Barnett is a ballhawk, and if Ohio State's defense makes it back to the top tier of the Big Ten in 2012, Barnett's probably going to be one of the main reasons why.
Finally, Purdue cornerback Ricardo Allen is a nominee. Allen burst onto the scene as a freshman in 2010, quickly making a name for himself as one of the top defensive backs in the Big Ten and receiving Freshman All-American honors in the process. That rise to glory plateaued a bit last season, but we're high on Allen getting over his sophomore slump and reestablishing himself as an elite defensive back.
In fact, the battle between Allen and Adams for the best cornerback in the Big Ten is going to be a joy to watch. Adams may have the upper hand just based on his teammates' play; if all Adams has to do is cover his guy for 2.5 seconds before the Spartan pass rush forces a throw, that's easier than if Allen has to stick with his guy for four-plus seconds. But they're both strong candidates in the Thorpe race (at least at this point in July, anyway), and it'll be a shocker if they're not both First Team All-Big Ten come December.