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Analysis: How Seahawks CB Coby Bryant Won the 2021 Jim Thorpe Award

As a fifth-year senior at Cincinnati last season, Seahawks rookie Coby Bryant was named the top defensive back in college football, winning the Jim Thorpe Award. How did he get it done? Ty Dane Gonzalez dives into the numbers.

Over the past three seasons, cornerback Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner was undoubtedly the star of Cincinnati's defensive backfield. With an elite combination of size, length and speed that he paired with NFL-level technique, Gardner never surrendered a touchdown when targeted during his collegiate career. 

As a result, the former Bearcat became the second cornerback and fourth player overall taken in last month's draft, heading to the Jets to play under defensive guru and former Seahawks assistant Robert Saleh. But despite Gardner's rare achievements and acclaim, neither he nor the man drafted one spot ahead of him, Derek Stingley Jr., were named the top defensive back in college football last year. 

That title, coming in the form of the Jim Thorpe Award, instead belongs to another player drafted in late April: Gardner's teammate at Cincinnati, Coby Bryant. Despite this, however, Bryant watched as Gardner, Stingley and 10 other corners came off the board before he finally had his ticket to the NFL punched by the Seahawks with pick No. 109 in the early fourth round. 

Underwhelming scouts with his pre-draft testing, there are certainly reasons for Bryant's fall. But some, like former Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, would argue to put results over testing in this particular situation. As such, Bryant has been commonly deemed a "gamer" above all else. 

Looking at his numbers as a fifth-year senior, as well as the uniqueness of his situation starting opposite the dominant Gardner, it's hard to disagree with Sherman's point. 

Thanks in part to Gardner's presence, Bryant found himself in a four-way tie for the 17th-most targets amongst all qualified cornerbacks in the nation, per Pro Football Focus. He was targeted once every 6.3 coverage snaps played, but limited opponents to a 44 percent completion rate despite the high volume of action. No other corner with a comparable amount of targets posted a lower mark than that. 

Of the 42 total passes that went incomplete against him last season, 12 were considered forced by Bryant. That placed him in a five-way tie for ninth-most in the country, with his 16 percent forced incompletion rate ranking 33rd. All while playing the 12th-highest rate of man coverage snaps in college football (47.1 percent), he kept opposing passers at bay to the tune of a 61.0 passer rating, which ranked 23rd.

Going a bit deeper into the numbers, there are a few games Bryant played in that particularly stand out. 

Against Indiana, Bryant held Cowboys undrafted free-agent Ty Fryfogle and the Hoosiers to no catches on four targets. He gave the same treatment to Titans UDFA Reggie Roberson Jr. and company when SMU visited Cincinnati later on in the year, forcing a goose egg on three targets. He never allowed 100 or more yards in a single game all year. 

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Even when the numbers indicate some struggles for Bryant, there is typically a pretty large caveat that comes with it. A perfect example of this is the AAC championship game, when Bryant was credited with allowing four catches on six targets for a season-high 97 yards and a touchdown against Houston. 

Interestingly, 51 of those yards came on one play: a screen pass to the receiver Bryant so happened to be lined up against at the snap, which should not reflect on him as poorly as it does in the box score. As he began backpedaling into his designated zone, Houston got the ball out quick and the rest is history. Objectively speaking, there was nothing Bryant could have done in that particular instance to prevent the explosive, which cut across the field away from him and was ultimately made possible by five missed tackles short of the sticks.

Two plays later, however, Bryant gave up a touchdown on a crossing route. But at that point, the game was well in hand for Cincinnati as the school clinched its first College Football Playoff berth. 

There, Bryant was met with arguably the biggest challenge of his playing career to date and impressively rose to the occasion. He and Gardner have faced criticism for the lack of competition they faced in the mid-major AAC, but against Alabama, they were able to silence some of that talk. 

Cincinnati lost in miserable fashion, seeing its otherwise magical season come to an end by a score of 27-6. Nevertheless, Bryant held up his end of the bargain, going toe-to-toe with the likes of Lions first-round draft pick Jameson Williams and allowing just two catches on five targets for an inconsequential 18 yards. Williams, specifically, caught two of the three passes that went his way versus Bryant, but the third was intercepted by Cincinnati safety Bryan Cook on an overthrow from Alabama quarterback Bryce Young.

This performance, of course, came well after Bryant was announced as the Jim Thorpe Award winner, but it illustrates exactly why he finished his collegiate career with some hardware in tow. No matter the opponent, Bryant shows no fear when he steps out on the gridiron, which bodes well for his ability to play above his competition level in the AAC and properly adjust to the NFL stage. 

He stays true to himself and plays aggressively, confidently and with good discipline. There are some areas of his game that need refinement from a technical standpoint and his athleticism, as mentioned, leaves more to be desired. 

But the competitive nature Bryant displays is truly intoxicating. When gameday rolls around, he simply becomes a different animal than what his testing indicates. It's not hard to spot the award-winning pedigree he possesses, nor the potentially sensational value he offers to the Seahawks for where they wound up landing him. 

There's a lot to be excited about here.