Aqib Talib would like to talk to you. It doesn’t matter who you are—a fellow defensive back in need of a confidence boost, an opposing receiver who has been put on notice that receptions will be in short supply against him, or perhaps a complete stranger curious about the pronunciation of his name. (It rhymes: ah-KEEB tah-LEEB.) It doesn’t even matter if you can’t talk back, like his four-month-old daughter, Kiara. Talib, Kansas’ junior cornerback-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 a verbal roll. “I’ve got to talk,” he says.
“Got to. No matter what I’m doing, I’m talking while I do it. It keeps me alive, keeps my blood flowing. That’s just me, it’s who I am. I’m a talker.”
He is also one of the 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 a touchdown against Florida International—and that total would almost certainly be higher if opponents, after a 2006 season in which Talib picked off six passes and broke up 22 others, weren’t so judicious about throwing in his direction. He has proven so adept at getting his hands on the ball that Kansas coach Mark Mangino occasionally sends him out to do it on offense, often with spectacular results. Talib’s only reception last year went for a 42-yard touchdown, and he has averaged 22.8 yards per reception and scored four times on his eight catches this season. “He would be one of the top receivers in the country if we used him there all the time,” says Mangino.
His versatility is reminiscent of other cornerbacks who dabbled in pass catching, including Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson and Talib’s idol, Deion Sanders, whom he admires for his skills, both in coverage and in conversation. It’s no coincidence that Talib’s patter is a sort of Prime Time–lite with a hint of Chris Tucker in the Rush Hour movies. “He was the best at what he did, and he 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 still hoping one day he’ll hear about me and maybe give me some tips. That would be the best, if Prime Time called me up some time.” The cellphone charges on that sure-to-be marathon chat would be mind-boggling.
Although he isn’t picky about topics of discussion, Talib is especially happy to hold forth on the once lowly Jayhawks’ rise to No. 4 in the BCS standings and their unbeaten record, which improved to 9–0 with a 76–39 humiliation of Nebraska last Saturday. 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, a lightly recruited prospect who landed in Lawrence because he saw an opportunity to play early on, predicted during the preseason that his team would match that nine-win total this year, but it turns out he was aiming a bit low. “I was just throwing a number out there to let people know this wasn’t the same old Kansas,” he says. “What we’re doing doesn’t surprise me.”
Kansas didn’t need Talib to join the offense against the Cornhuskers. The Jayhawks’ regular unit gashed Nebraska at will, with a school-record six touchdown passes from sophomore quarterback Todd Reesing, four rushing touchdowns from bruising running back Brandon McAnderson and three TD catches by freshman wideout Dezmon Briscoe. The 76 points were the most ever scored against the once-feared Blackshirts in Nebraska’s 117-year history and further evidence that Kansas, despite a less than challenging early schedule (home games against Central Michigan, Southeastern Louisiana, Toledo and Florida International to start the season), has enough talent to be taken seriously as a contender for the BCS title game (box, below). With No. 2 Boston College and No. 4 Arizona State both losing for the first time on Saturday, Kansas, Ohio State and Hawaii are the only 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 favored to stay that way at least until their showdown in Kansas City, Mo., against No. 6 Missouri (8–1) in their regular-season finale.
Kansas’ success has put Talib in a position to unload a dump-truck full of trash talk on his opponents, but that’s not his style. While he has the unwavering self-confidence typical of an elite corner (“It was a jump ball,” he said of an interception against Kansas State, “and a jump ball is my ball”), he tempers it with a pinch of humility. The 6' 2", 205-pound Talib won’t consider himself worthy of the shutdown-corner tag until he starts locking up receivers on Sundays. “You can’t say that kind of thing about yourself until you’ve done it against the best, on the highest level,” he says. He considers New England Patriots wideout Randy Moss to be the ultimate test for a cornerback. “He’s the best and I’m a college cornerback, so I’d be crazy to say I could cover him,” Talib says. “As of right now, I have to give him his respect and say he’d beat me . . . as of right now.”
Talib’s in-game commentary tends to be more playful than malicious, which is why Mangino hasn’t told him to turn down the volume. In Kansas’ 19–11 win over Texas A&M on Oct. 27, Aggies quarterback Stephen McGee faked a handoff and ran a bootleg that failed to fool the Jayhawks. “You’ve got to come with something better than that!” Talib yapped after Kansas stopped the play cold. “You think we don’t watch film? We’ve been looking at that play all week!” There were smiles behind the Aggies’ face masks as they returned to their huddle.
Talib’s outgoing nature was born partly of necessity during a childhood in which he had to adapt to 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 the summers, he and his older brother, Yaqub, would go to Cleveland to live with extended family, and when Aqib reached high school, his father felt it was time to remove him entirely from the negative pull of their Trenton neighborhood, so he sent him to the Dallas suburb of Richardson to live with his mother, Okolo Talib. With every move, Aqib began as the outsider, the new kid trying to find his place in the group, and each time he found himself in a new environment, he hit the ground talking.
“He had this ability to make friends and make people comfortable in a hurry,” Henry says. “He was never shy, he’d just walk up to people and start talking to them like they had known each other forever. He couldn’t afford to be the quiet kid who waited to have people come to him.”
But lately Talib has added a more serious, responsible side to his lighthearted, happy-go-lucky approach, thanks to the arrival of his daughter. He and his girlfriend, Kansas sprinter Cortney Jacobs, live in an off-campus apartment with Kiara, and caring for her has helped Talib mature. His tendency toward tardiness, for instance, 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 to be the kind of father my father was to me,” he says. “The time comes when you have to be a man, when others are depending on you, and you can’t take that lightly.”
The Jayhawks depend on Talib just as much, particularly in the secondary, where his knack for motivational speaking has been almost as important as his performance on the field. Though he earned all–Big 12 honors last season, Kansas ranked 119th—dead last—in Division I-A in pass defense. This year the Jayhawks have jumped to 46th. Part of that improvement is due to Talib’s mentoring and pumping up his fellow defensive backs. “He’s constantly telling us, ‘You’ve got 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 our confidence, making sure we believe in ourselves.”
Along with added confidence, the Jayhawks believe their competitive edge is sharper than it was a year ago, when they blew leads in five of their six losses. Mangino set out to correct that problem during the off-season by randomly dividing the players into eight groups and setting up a series of competitions throughout the spring and summer. Each team was assigned a color and chose a captain, and the players competed for points in a variety of challenges that had little or nothing to do with football, including free throw shooting, bowling and obstacle courses. Winners relaxed, losers had to do extra conditioning. Points were tallied for each competition, and the seven losing teams ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches while watching the winners enjoy a steak dinner.
Talib’s team was one of the ones that dined on PB&J, but though he hated losing, Talib loved the 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 those competitions, and it carried over into practice. When we did seven-on-seven drills, we played like it was a bowl game even though there was nothing at stake. Everybody wanted to win at everything, no matter how small. That’s why a lot of those close losses from last season are turning into wins.” Among those wins are road victories over Kansas State, Colorado and Texas A&M, all by eight points or fewer.
Despite those victories Talib wouldn’t argue with those who say that the Jayhawks haven’t completely proven themselves. Ask him to name the biggest game he’s played in during his Kansas career, and he actually falls silent for a moment. “Maybe the Fort Worth Bowl [in 2005], or anytime we play Kansas State,” he finally says. But those matchups would be nothing compared to the games that could be in the Jayhawks’ future—possible appearances in the Big 12 and BCS championship games. “If we were to go that far, I can’t even imagine how crazy this place would get,” he says. “I wouldn’t be able to even put it into words.” Kansas playing for a championship? Hard to believe. Aqib Talib, speechless? Impossible.