Blalock earns first-team All-America honors; Ross captures Thorpe Award
As the celebration was ready to begin in DKR Memorial Stadium last January, saluting the Longhorns for their national championship, there was undercurrent of concern that one of the stars of that team would not return for his senior season.
That star - junior right tackle Justin Blalock - eliminated any worries among the faithful when he stated that he had some bad news for the Big 12 defenses in 2006.
He was coming back to anchor the UT offensive line.
Blalock's reward for the decision to return for his senior year manifested itself first and foremost in his degree, which he received in December.
"I know people think most of us big guys lift weights all day and are some kind of meatheads." Blalock told the Dallas Morning News. "I'm trying to dispel that. That's my real goal in life."
His reward for returning for his senior year also manifested itself in Blalock being a unanimous selection as first-team All-America, becoming the only Big-12 position player to be selected as a first-team All-America on the Associated Press' 2006 squad.
Blalock also became the 18th Longhorn ever to be so honored with a unanimous selection. His place on the first team marked the fourth Texas player in the last three seasons to earn that spot. UT has had a first-team AP All-America in each of the last seven years.
Blalock, a former tuba player in middle school, was a finalist for the Outland Trophy and the Lombardi - the two awards given to the nation's outstanding linemen.
He is projected as a first-round pick in April's NFL draft because with his size, experience and intelligence, NFL scouts see him as being able to play tackle, guard or center on the offensive line.
UT defensive back Aaron Ross and Michael Griffin were both selected as second-team All-Americas.
But Ross' biggest prize came in winning the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back. It marked the second straight year that a Texas defensive back captured the Thorpe, named for one of the greatest athletes in college football history.
UT safety Michael Huff was so honored last year -- the first Longhorn ever to capture the Thorpe that was first awarded in 1986.
"I was overwhelmed," said Ross, who did not become a starter at cornerback until this season. He had 10 takeaways in the 2006 regular season.
"I heard Terrell Buckley say my name (on the national telecast of the awards show from Disney World)," Ross continued, "And I thought 'Whoa.' So many emotions were running through my body.
"It's unbelievable to be considered the nation's top DB this season. I couldn't have done it without Michael (Griffin), Marcus (Griffin) and Tarrell (Brown) playing so well. And, I couldn't have done it without Coach (Duane) Akina. I owe everything I accomplished as a DB to him. He is the best defensive coach in America. He took a skinny corner who didn't like to hit and turned him into an all-around DB.
"When I laid down that night (of the awards ceremony), I couldn't stop thinking about it. I actually cried, thinking of what all I had been through."
What Ross had been through was two years of waiting for the NCAA Clearinghouse to decipher a clerical error on his high school transcript, delaying his enrollment at UT.
"I thought about everybody who helped me along the way," he said. "I especially thought about my mom."
Ross earned an additional reward with Texas' appearance in the Alamo Bowl, as his mom and other family members could see him play in his old hometown. Ross went to Fox Tech High School for two years before the family moved to Tyler.
He did not disappoint his faithful on the last Saturday afternoon of December.
Ross' interception in the second quarter of the Alamo Bowl halted an Iowa drive and was the key play that ignited Texas to a 26-24 come-from-behind victory in their first-ever appearance in the San Antonio bowl game.
That was particularly special to Ross, whose father watched him for the first time as a Longhorn.
Ross was chosen the Most Outstanding Player in the Alamo Bowl.
"I feel unbelievably blessed," he said.