AQIB TALIB wouldlike to talk to you. It doesn't matter who you are—a fellow defensive back inneed of a confidence boost, an opposing receiver who has been put on noticethat receptions will be in short supply against him, or perhaps a completestranger curious about the pronunciation of his name. (It rhymes: ah-KEEBtah-LEEB.) It doesn't even matter if you can't talk back, like hisfour-month-old daughter, Kiara. Talib, Kansas' juniorcornerback-wideout-chatterbox, craves conversation, even when it's one-sided,as much as he does oxygen, which he expends a great deal of when he gets on averbal roll. "I've got to talk," he says."Got to. No matter whatI'm doing, I'm talking while I do it. It keeps me alive, keeps my bloodflowing. That's just me, it's who I am. I'm a talker."
He is also one ofthe finest defensive backs in the country, a shutdown corner who can't shut up.Talib has three-interceptions—one of which he returned 100 yards for atouchdown against Florida International—and that total would almost certainlybe higher if opponents, after a 2006 season in which Talib picked off sixpasses and broke up 22 others, weren't so judicious about throwing in hisdirection. He has proven so adept at getting his hands on the ball that Kansascoach Mark Mangino occasionally sends him out to do it on offense, often withspectacular results. Talib's only reception last year went for a 42-yardtouchdown, and he has averaged 22.8 yards per reception and scored four timeson his eight catches this season. "He would be one of the top receivers inthe country if we used him there all the time," says Mangino.
His versatility isreminiscent of other cornerbacks who dabbled in pass catching, includingHeisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson and Talib's idol, Deion Sanders, whom headmires for his skills, both in coverage and in conversation. It's nocoincidence that Talib's patter is a sort of Prime Time--lite with a hint ofChris Tucker in the Rush Hour movies. "He was the best at what he did, andhe didn't mind letting people know about it," Talib says of Sanders."He backed up everything he said, and you have to respect that. I'm stillhoping one day he'll hear about me and maybe give me some tips. That would bethe best, if Prime Time called me up some time." The cellphone charges onthat sure-to-be marathon chat would be mind-boggling.
Although he isn'tpicky about topics of discussion, Talib is especially happy to hold forth onthe once lowly Jayhawks' rise to No. 4 in the BCS standings and their unbeatenrecord, which improved to 9-0 with a 76--39 humiliation of Nebraska lastSaturday. Kansas hasn't been undefeated this late in the season in 99 years,and the last time the Jayhawks won as many as nine games was in 1995. Talib, alightly recruited prospect who landed in Lawrence because he saw an opportunityto play early on, predicted during the preseason that his team would match thatnine-win total this year, but it turns out he was aiming a bit low. "I wasjust throwing a number out there to let people know this wasn't the same oldKansas," he says. "What we're doing doesn't surprise me."
Kansas didn't needTalib to join the offense against the Cornhuskers. The Jayhawks' regular unitgashed Nebraska at will, with a school-record six touchdown passes fromsophomore quarterback Todd Reesing, four rushing touchdowns from bruisingrunning back Brandon McAnderson and three TD catches by freshman wideout DezmonBriscoe. The 76 points were the most ever scored against the once-fearedBlackshirts in Nebraska's 117-year history and further evidence that Kansas,despite a less than challenging early schedule (home games against CentralMichigan, Southeastern Louisiana, Toledo and Florida International to start theseason), has enough talent to be taken seriously as a contender for the BCStitle game (box, below). With No. 2 Boston College and No. 4 Arizona State bothlosing for the first time on Saturday, Kansas, Ohio State and Hawaii are theonly remaining undefeated teams in Division I-A, and with Oklahoma State (5--4)and Iowa State (2--8) as their next two opponents, the Jayhawks will be favoredto stay that way at least until their showdown in Kansas City, Mo., against No.6 Missouri (8--1) in their regular-season finale.
KANSAS' SUCCESShas put Talib in a position to unload a dump-truck full of trash talk on hisopponents, but that's not his style. While he has the unwaveringself-confidence typical of an elite corner ("It was a jump ball," hesaid of an interception against Kansas State, "and a jump ball is myball"), he tempers it with a pinch of humility. The 6'2", 205-poundTalib won't consider himself worthy of the shutdown-corner tag until he startslocking up receivers on Sundays. "You can't say that kind of thing aboutyourself until you've done it against the best, on the highest level," hesays. He considers New England Patriots wideout Randy Moss to be the ultimatetest for a cornerback. "He's the best and I'm a college cornerback, so I'dbe crazy to say I could cover him," Talib says. "As of right now, Ihave to give him his respect and say he'd beat me ... as of right now."
Talib's in-gamecommentary tends to be more playful than malicious, which is why Mangino hasn'ttold him to turn down the volume. In Kansas' 19--11 win over Texas A&M onOct. 27, Aggies quarterback Stephen McGee faked a handoff and ran a bootlegthat failed to fool the Jayhawks. "You've got to come with something betterthan that!" Talib yapped after Kansas stopped the play cold. "You thinkwe don't watch film? We've been looking at that play all week!" There weresmiles behind the Aggies' face masks as they returned to their huddle.
Talib's outgoingnature was born partly of necessity during a childhood in which he had to adaptto frequent change. During his grade school years he lived in Trenton, N.J.,with his father, Ted Henry. "I had friends who were skipping school,getting into trouble in the fourth, fifth grade," Aqib says. In thesummers, he and his older brother, Yaqub, would go to Cleveland to live withextended family, and when Aqib reached high school, his father felt it was timeto remove him entirely from the negative pull of their Trenton neighborhood, sohe sent him to the Dallas suburb of Richardson to live with his mother, OkoloTalib. With every move, Aqib began as the outsider, the new kid trying to findhis place in the group, and each time he found himself in a new environment, hehit the ground talking.
"He had thisability to make friends and make people comfortable in a hurry," Henrysays. "He was never shy, he'd just walk up to people and start talking tothem like they had known each other forever. He couldn't afford to be the quietkid who waited to have people come to him."
But lately Talibhas added a more serious, responsible side to his lighthearted, happy-go-luckyapproach, thanks to the arrival of his daughter. He and his girlfriend, Kansassprinter Cortney Jacobs, live in an off--campus apartment with Kiara, andcaring for her has helped Talib mature. His tendency toward tardiness, forinstance, which once made the meaning of his first name—it's Arabic for"last to come"—even more appropriate, is long gone. "I'm trying tobe the kind of father my father was to me," he says. "The time comeswhen you have to be a man, when others are depending on you, and you can't takethat lightly."
The Jayhawksdepend on Talib just as much, particularly in the secondary, where his knackfor motivational speaking has been almost as important as his performance onthe field. Though he earned all--Big 12 honors last season, Kansas ranked119th—dead last—in Division I-A in pass defense. This year the Jayhawks havejumped to 46th. Part of that improvement is due to Talib's mentoring andpumping up his fellow defensive backs. "He's constantly telling us, 'You'vegot this guy. He can't beat you. You're faster than him, you're tougher,'"says freshman corner Chris Harris. "Aqib is always working on ourconfidence, making sure we believe in ourselves."
ALONG WITH addedconfidence, the Jayhawks believe their competitive edge is sharper than it wasa year ago, when they blew leads in five of their six losses. Mangino set outto correct that problem during the off-season by randomly dividing the playersinto eight groups and setting up a series of competitions throughout the springand summer. Each team was assigned a color and chose a captain, and the playerscompeted for points in a variety of challenges that had little or nothing to dowith football, including free throw shooting, bowling and obstacle courses.Winners relaxed, losers had to do extra conditioning. Points were tallied foreach competition, and the seven losing teams ate peanut butter and jellysandwiches while watching the winners enjoy a steak dinner.
Talib's team wasone of the ones that dined on PB&J, but though he hated losing, Talib lovedthe results. "Coach Mangino came up with the master plan," he says."It gave us an edge that we didn't have before. We all fought hard in thosecompetitions, and it carried over into practice. When we did seven-on-sevendrills, we played like it was a bowl game even though there was nothing atstake. Everybody wanted to win at everything, no matter how small. That's why alot of those close losses from last season are turning into wins." Amongthose wins are road victories over Kansas State, Colorado and Texas A&M,all by eight points or fewer.
Despite thosevictories Talib wouldn't argue with those who say that the Jayhawks haven'tcompletely proven themselves. Ask him to name the biggest game he's played induring his Kansas career, and he actually falls silent for a moment. "Maybethe Fort Worth Bowl [in 2005], or anytime we play Kansas State," he finallysays. But those matchups would be nothing compared to the games that could bein the Jayhawks' future—possible appearances in the Big 12 and BCS championshipgames. "If we were to go that far, I can't even imagine how crazy thisplace would get," he says. "I wouldn't be able to even put it intowords." Kansas playing for a championship? Hard to believe. Aqib Talib,speechless? Impossible.
"Coach Mangino came up with the master plan,"says Talib. "It gave us an edge we didn't have before."
"He'd be one of the top receivers in the country ifwe used him all the time," Mangino says.
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One but Not Done
If undefeated Ohio State or Kansas stumbles, it willfall into the cluster of one-loss teams fighting for a berth in the BCS titlegame. (The only other unbeaten, Hawaii, has virtually no chance because of itsweak schedule.) Here are the one-loss teams (with their BCS rank), listed inorder of their chances of getting into the championship game.
No. 2 LSU (8--1) LOST TO: Kentucky
COMMENT: SEC schedule is so strong that if Tigers win out, they might even edgean undefeated Kansas
No. 3 OREGON (8--1) LOST TO: Cal
COMMENT: Remaining slate—at Arizona, at UCLA, Oregon State—gives Ducks goodchance to run table
No. 5 OKLAHOMA (8--1) LOST TO: Colorado
COMMENT: Nov. 17 game at high-scoring Texas Tech (7--3) a dangerous matchup forSooners
No. 6 MISSOURI (8--1) LOST TO: Oklahoma
COMMENT: Wins over Kansas and in the Big 12 title game (Oklahoma?) would giveTigers a major strength-of-schedule lift
No. 7 WEST VIRGINIA (7--1) LOST TO: South Florida
COMMENT: Three of last four are at home, but Mountaineers might be hurt by notplaying a conference title game
No. 9 ARIZONA STATE (8--1) LOST TO: Oregon
COMMENT: Needs a lot of help to get to championship game, but Rose Bowl isstill very much in play
No. 13 CONNECTICUT (8--1) LOST TO: Virginia
COMMENT: Road games against Cincinnati (7--2) and West Virginia (7--1) make BCSbowl a long shot
No. 8 BOSTON COLLEGE (8--1) LOST TO: Florida State
COMMENT: Losing to unranked Seminoles so late in season probably knocks Eaglesout of national title picture
No. 20 BOISE STATE (8--1) LOST TO: Washington
COMMENT: Broncos need an even bigger miracle than the one they pulled off inlast season's Fiesta Bowl
Photograph by David E. Klutho
DOUBLE PLAY Talib is known for his coverage skills, but he has also scored four touchdowns as a wide receiver.
[See caption above]
DAVID E. KLUTHO
SIX FOR 5 Reesing picked apart the Nebraska secondary, throwing for a school-record half-dozen touchdowns.
DAVID E. KLUTHO