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Cincinnati's Coby Bryant Wins 2021 Jim Thorpe Award

Paul KasabianFeatured Columnist IIDecember 10, 2021

CINCINNATI, OHIO - DECEMBER 04: Coby Bryant #7 of the Cincinnati Bearcats celebrates an interception during the second half of the 2021 American Conference Championship against the Houston Cougars at Nippert Stadium on December 04, 2021 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images)
Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

Cincinnati cornerback Coby Bryant has won the Jim Thorpe Award, which the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame presents to the nation's top collegiate defensive back.

The winner was announced at The Home Depot College Football Awards on Thursday.

Oregon safety Verone McKinley III and Baylor safety Jalen Pitre were also finalists for the award.

The award has been given out since 1986, and previous winners include football luminaries such as Deion Sanders, Charles Woodson and Patrick Peterson.  

The last five winners of the award have all ended up being selected in the first or second round of the NFL draft. Las Vegas Raiders safety Tre'von Moehrig won the trophy in 2020 when he suited up for TCU.

Here's a brief look at each finalist's resumes, starting with the winner.

     

Cincinnati CB Coby Bryant

The undefeated Bearcats earned their first-ever College Football Playoff berth in part because of players like Bryant, who helps form a rock-solid defense that has helped propel the team to great heights.

He had 40 tackles (32 solo), two interceptions and 11 passes defended for the undefeated Bearcats. He's a shutdown corner whose work has been recognized nationwide. Of note, Pro Football Focus thinks highly of the fifth-year senior's efforts:

PFF College Football @PFF_College

Highest-graded CBs in College Football πŸ”’ <a href="https://t.co/TFm6uGdFwe">pic.twitter.com/TFm6uGdFwe</a>

Bryant's resume includes many highlights, but his 74-yard pick six in a 56-21 win over UCF serves as one of his best:

ESPN @espn

PICK-SIX πŸ‘€<br><br>Coby Bryant finds the end zone after a 74-yard return. <a href="https://t.co/GEIUixCRe5">pic.twitter.com/GEIUixCRe5</a>

His best game was at No. 6 Notre Dame, when Bryant had seven tackles and three passes defended in a 24-13 win.

Cincinnati's defense was exceptional that day, as it has been all season, with the Bearcats allowing the fourth-fewest points in Division I FCS (16.1 PPG). 

     

Baylor S Jalen Pitre

Pitre will forever be a Waco legend. He was the only member of the 2017 Bears class who stayed with the program after head coach Art Briles was fired, per John Werner of the Waco Tribune-Herald.

In 2021, he had 70 tackles (54 solo), 2.5 sacks, two interceptions, seven passes defended and three forced fumbles. The fifth-year senior helped Baylor earn a No. 7 College Football Playoff ranking, a Big 12 Championship and an 11-2 record.

Pitre's best game, which occurred during a 38-24 win over BYU, ended with him earning the Senior Bowl's Defensive Player of the Week honors:

Reese's Senior Bowl @seniorbowl

.<a href="https://twitter.com/JalenPitre1?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@JalenPitre1</a> is our Defensive Player of the Week for the <a href="https://twitter.com/BUFootball?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@BUFootball</a> win over BYU, 38-24. Pitre had 10 total tackles, 9 solo, 2.5 TFLs, 1 sack, 1 fumble recovery, and a QBH. <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/SicEm?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#SicEm</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/TheDraftStartsInMOBILE?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#TheDraftStartsInMOBILE</a> <a href="https://t.co/jzzMDPBWxh">pic.twitter.com/jzzMDPBWxh</a>

He routinely made game-changing plays, such as this interception versus West Virginia in a 45-20 win:

FOX College Football @CFBONFOX

PICKED OFF 🀚<br><br>Jalen Pitre comes up with his second interception of the season for <a href="https://twitter.com/BUFootball?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@BUFootball</a> <a href="https://t.co/pAICHf7yT4">pic.twitter.com/pAICHf7yT4</a>

Baylor responded to that pick by going 48 yards in five plays for a touchdown and 20-7 lead.

Pitre added seven more tackles (two for a loss) and two pass breakups in the Bears' 21-16 Big 12 Championship Game win versus Oklahoma State.

    

Oregon S Verone McKinley III

You can't find many defensive backs more productive than McKinley, who is equally adept at delivering big hits as he is at making huge interceptions and pass breakups.

Oregon was in the College Football Playoff picture midseason in part because of a strong running game and a playmaking defense featuring a superstar on each level (edge-rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux, linebacker Noah Sewell and McKinley on the back line).

In conjunction, those three did excellent work for the Ducks, which won 10 games and finished as the Pac-12 runner-up.

As far as McKinley went, the third-year sophomore starred with 71 tackles and six interceptions.

His best game came in Oregon's 42-35 win at Ohio State on Sept. 11, when he had six tackles, two passes defended, one forced fumble and one huge interception to kill off a late OSU drive with the Buckeyes down seven with under three minutes remaining:

Yahoo Sports @YahooSports

"And that may do it!"<br><br>Oregon's Verone McKinley III with a huge INT late in the fourth quarter vs. Ohio State 😱<br><br>(via <a href="https://twitter.com/CFBONFOX?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@CFBONFOX</a>) <a href="https://t.co/dMFBkRdaoM">pic.twitter.com/dMFBkRdaoM</a>

That ended up being one of the most impressive wins of the season from any team. McKinley played a big role in that effort, which is part of the reason why he was acknowledged as one of college football's top three defensive backs.