OKLAHOMA CITY -- Malcolm Jenkins had dreams about playing in the NFL, just as many other little kids did. He never really believed he'd be so close to making them come true.
Growing up in what he called a "concrete jungle" in New Jersey, Jenkins rarely even had a serious thought about college football, much less the pros. Just getting noticed by Ohio State was a huge first step.
"A lot of guys don't get recruited. We just got on the map when I came out of high school," Jenkins said Monday night before being recognized with the Thorpe Award as the top college defensive back.
"To think of a scholarship was just like, 'Oh, my God. You've got to be like the best in the nation to get a scholarship.' Nobody really thinks of themselves like that that early. I was blessed enough to get that opportunity and make the best of it."
After four years and two BCS championship game appearances with the Buckeyes, Jenkins' recognition by the Thorpe Award committee is being mirrored by many NFL draft experts who expect him to be the first cornerback taken in April.
"I've heard a lot of things. I try to keep my face out of the media and just focus on my training and just focus on what I need to do," Jenkins said. "It's right there, it's right around the corner, and I'm excited to see where it's going to take me and see what new chapters life opens."
And as Jenkins looks around at the other players in his draft class, he has to take some Jersey pride. Georgia tailback Knowshon Moreno, Virginia offensive tackle Eugene Monroe, Iowa running back Shonn Greene and Southern Cal linebacker Nick Cushing are all from New Jersey, too, and all projected as first-round draft picks.
"We've got a lot of good players out of Jersey but we all disperse all over the place, so you never really hear about it," Jenkins said.
The Thorpe Award brought him to Oklahoma City for the first time, where he picked out a scarlet-and-gray tuxedo to wear to the formal reception along with a pair of dark grey cowboy boots with red accents. He's only the second Ohio State player among the award's 23 past winners.
"I always looked at Antoine Winfield just because he played at Ohio State, and what he did at Ohio State was always something I tried to measure myself from," Jenkins said, standing in a hallway decorated with pictures of past winners including Winfield, Deion Sanders and Charles Woodson.
"Then to look at all the rest of these guys, it's just amazing and extremely humbling for me just to be able to be mentioned in the same breath with these guys."
After being a semifinalist last year, Jenkins made the Thorpe Award his main individual goal for this season. He had three interceptions to push his career total to 11, and beat fellow finalists Eric Berry of Tennessee and Taylor Mays of Southern California.
"He's put so much work into this, so much heart into it," said Taver Johnson, Jenkins' cornerbacks coach. "He would say first and foremost that he wouldn't be here without his teammates. We're truly going to miss him."
Johnson, who was hired at Ohio State in March of 2007, said he knew immediately that he had a special player in Jenkins.
"No one was really around. It was the offseason, and he was in there watching film," Johnson said. "That showed me right there the type of ambition and the type of young man that this guy is."
Jenkins now finds himself in a fraternity that includes NFL superstars and Super Bowl champions, and he's mere months away from reaching what he once thought was an unattainable dream.
"Just to be able to say I was the best in the nation at one point in time, to be able to permanently write my name in the books is just something that I wanted to do," Jenkins said. "I always strive for the top, and there's no other way to do it."