IOWA CITY, Iowa — The cowboy hat is in the closet, wrangling dust bunnies. Right next to the Jim Thorpe Award. Out of sight. Out of mind.
“I would say it’s symbolic,” Iowa cornerback Desmond King said at the Hawkeyes’ preseason media day. “Just kind of a (reminder) of a great season that I had. It’s something that I kind of took pride in, wearing it. (But) I feel that it goes with the trophy, so that’s where it’s at.”
New season. New slate. The booty from his victory lap in Oklahoma City this past winter — the hat, the boots and the trophy presented by the Thorpe folks honoring his coronation as the top defensive back in college football — are 2015’s narrative, 2015’s spoils, 2015’s problem.
“You’re starting over at a new level,” King said. “So I mean, it’s the same level, the same stage, you’re just repeating it over. I still have the same goals, the same expectations going into the season. And there’s a new goal to reach now — and that’s to make that All-American (level) again.”
Sequels are a brutal hill to charge, traditionally, and the stronger the original, the higher the climb. King led the Big Ten in interceptions last fall (eight), tying the program’s single-season school record held by Lou King and Nile Kinnick, Iowa’s only Heisman Trophy winner. Among Hawkeye circles, compound sentences shared with Kinnick’s name are sacred, let alone statistical milestones.
In other words, good luck with that encore, kid.
“Accolades don’t make plays,” defensive coordinator and secondary coach Phil Parker said. “He knows that. Just because what he did before doesn’t mean you’re going to do it again.
“And I want to make sure that he stays on the right page for what we’re doing and becomes the best player that he can become … obviously, he has some unfinished business, that’s why he came back. He wanted to come back and improve his ability to play, and hopefully we see that accomplishment (over the course) of the year.”
Hopefully. After 72 tackles and 13 pass breakups in 2015, King won’t sneak up on a soul, whether that’s between the white lines or outside them:
— The Iowa Hawkeyes (@TheIowaHawkeyes) August 6, 2016
“And I’ve told him: It’s going to be hard,” Parker continued. “It’s not easy for him. Because everybody’s looking at you and what you do. And you know, you’re a leader, whether you like it or not.”
Parker didn’t so much raise the bar for his best cornerback this spring as strap the thing to a rocket ship and launch it at the moon. He doesn’t want a sequel. He wants “The Godfather: Part II,” the kind of piece that makes fans debate which installment rocked the hardest.
“I still don’t think he’s reached his potential yet,” the coach said of King. “Who knows what it is. But I just don’t think — he hasn’t played his best football yet, I don’t think. I think he still can be better. That’s just my opinion. I thought (former Iowa safety) Bob Sanders could be better, too.”
Pretty good company, that.
“I think (King’s) desire and stuff like that is very similar, two guys that like to play the game,” Parker said in reference to Sanders, a safety and walking hit stick who was tapped the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2007. “Bob was different, had a different mentality — you know, it’s the violence (in his game). There’s differences in the positions between the safety and the corner.”
Both are compact (Sanders was listed at 5-8; King is 5-10-ish). Both love to mash.
But knocking some poor sucker’s cranium into the next county was Sanders’ go-to move; with King, it’s just another tool in a pretty fair arsenal. Plus, he’s spent the past few months shaving the rough edges off the rest — focusing on explosiveness, straight-line speed, quick hips, and technique.
“You know, one of the reasons he is so good and one of the reasons he was able to get his hands on the ball is (that) he’s got pretty good feel for the game,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “Maybe I shouldn’t use that word. I’m always careful about saying a ‘feel’ for the game or ‘he’s got good instincts,’ because feel and instincts, those things are developed, they’re not — you don’t just fall out of a tree with them.
“Some guys have a little better ability there, maybe innately, but it comes from experience, from working hard, watching film, really thinking about what you’re doing, not just going out there and doing it. There’s a lot of thought that goes into it.”
King is a thinking man’s cornerback, a student of the finer points that Ferentz and Parker are habitual sticklers for. The Detroit native’s in line to become the first Thorpe Award winner with eligibility remaining to actually return to school after receiving the honor, and he did it for the right reasons. His team. His mom, Yvette. The memory of his late older brother, shot and killed in September 2012. The chance to become the first member of his family to receive a college degree.
And, perhaps, this: Of the 15 cornerbacks taken in the first round since 2013, only four were shorter than 6-foot-even. Of the last eight to be selected during the last two first rounds, only one — Florida’s Vernon Hargreaves — measured 5-11 or shorter. Bigger is perceived as better, especially on the boundary.
“They’re about speed, things like that,” King said. “Like I said, it’s all about the athlete’s athleticism, what you can do at that position (for them). That’s what you’re leading up to.”
The average height of the first-team Associated Press All-Pro cornerback from 2011-2015 is 6-foot-1 and change, a subset skewed a bit by the Seattle Seahawks’ Richard Sherman (6-3). None were listed as shorter than 6-feet.
“Height is just a number,” King said with a grin. “To me, really, it’s all about the ability and what you can do at that level and at that position.
“I mean, I’ve always been told I’m too short, and (things) like that. I mean, that’s just me.”
He first heard it in Little League, when he was 5 or 6. Old wounds. Fresh scars.
“A guy told me I was too short to play for a team,” King recalled. “And I was just saying, ‘I can still do this.’ He didn’t believe me.”
With that, King smiled again. Wickedly. As sequels go, nobody can say with certainty where this puppy is going to land, but know this: It won’t be boring.
You can reach Sean Keeler via email at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @seankeeler