IOWA CITY, Iowa — Desmond King’s portrait hangs in Iowa’s All-American room where news conferences are held and Hawkeye players enjoy their lunches.
The wall displays Iowa’s greatest players, ranging from 1939 Heisman Trophy winner Nile Kinnick to 2014 Outland Trophy winner Brandon Scherff. It’s reserved for consensus All-Americans, of which King is a member.
King earned that painting, plus a Rolex watch (which he receives when his eligibility expires) and a cowboy hat for a dazzling junior season. He tied a school record with eight interceptions and was named the Jim Thorpe Award winner as the nation’s top defensive back.
Even with NFL millions awaiting, King elected to stay at Iowa. He promised his mother he’d get his degree. In December, in less than four years in Iowa City, he will finish a double major in African-American studies and broadcast journalism.
Before he receives his Bachelor of Arts degree — two days after his 22nd birthday — King has half a season left in his stellar Iowa career. He has 11 career interceptions but zero this year. In fact, he hasn’t picked off a pass in 11 consecutive games. But King might be playing better than ever, even without the statistics.
Pro Football Focus grades college football players at every position beyond the statistics sheet. Opponents have stayed away from King at an alarming rate this year. In six games, he’s been targeted 22 times. He’s allowed 10 receptions for 70 yards, no touchdowns and four recorded breakups. That means his direct opponents average fewer than two catches and 12 yards per game. PFF ranks King as the nation’s second-best defensive back this year.
“He’s an awfully good player,” Minnesota coach Tracy Claeys said. “He makes a lot of plays, and if he’s covering our guys close and shutting them down, then we won’t throw there, either.
“That’s a matchup if we can’t get somebody open, which we know will be difficult, then we won’t be going that way, either.”
Minnesota went after King last Saturday more than most opponents, throwing nine passes in his direction. Gophers receivers caught three passes for 23 yards on him. One of those catches went for a 2-yard loss. On the next play, Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner threw an interception. Leidner finished 13-of-33 passing and two interceptions.
King (5-foot-11, 205 pounds) usually lines up as a right cornerback but shifts inside across from the slot receiver in a sub-package. On the Gophers’ third play from scrimmage, King covered inside receiver Drew Wolitarsky and broke up the pass. King’s name didn’t even appear in the box score for that play.
On Minnesota’s next possession, Leidner threw toward receiver Tyler Johnson. King jumped the route and nearly intercepted the pass for a score.
“You’ve just got to be alert for what’s coming up and just doing my job, not taking any plays off, just being a leader on the field and when opportunity comes, I’ll take it,” King said.
There’s a danger with seeing so few passes in a cornerback’s direction. It can cause a brief letdown at a position where one bad step could lead to an opponent’s touchdown. That’s what King faces on every down, yet he’s still up to the challenge.
“Of course it’s going to be different because the ball’s not coming my way,” King said. “But I have to do my part on the field, that’s communicating with the rest of the guys on the field in the back end of the defense, getting them ready and doing my part on special teams. No frustration or anything like that at all.”
It’s also a challenge for the coaching staff. With King anchoring one side, that leaves the other exposed. Quarterbacks regularly target senior cornerback Greg Mabin with mixed success.
“One of the down sides about being a corner is you can only play usually one place. You’re either here or there,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said.
“Then on sub-defenses, we’ll match them up on guys, but then they can go outside instead of inside. So if you have a guy that’s that good — and I’m not saying he is, I’m not standing here saying that — but I’m saying if you’ve got a guy that people deem to be that way, unless you want to move him to safety, then it’s a whole different circumstance there, too. Which I think he’d play really well there, too.”
Ferentz straddles a line with respecting King’s success and still treating him like any other player. Ferentz benched King for the first quarter at Nebraska last November for arriving late to a team function. While King’s portrait adorns the All-American wall and he appears in the team’s massive weight room, there are other areas in the football complex with his photo on reserve until he graduates.
King has a legitimate shot at joining nine other players on the Kinnick Stadium Wall of Honor. Only two-time consensus All-Americans or one-time consensus All-Americans who are members of the College Football Hall of Fame are eligible. The last Iowa defensive back to earn that honor was Kinnick himself.
With 44 career starts, King should tie Matt Kroul’s school record of 50 on senior day. King could end up a two-time consensus All-American as well as a two-time all-Big Ten selection.
In Ferentz’s Iowa career, eight different defensive backs have earned first-team all-Big Ten honors. While the skill sets are different, King’s rise from 2-star recruit to success story reminds Ferentz of former 2012 Big Ten defensive back of the year Micah Hyde. Ferentz touted Hyde’s skills to NFL scouts, and he’ll do the same with King.
“My point to them is (Hyde is) just a really good football player,” Ferentz said of the Green Bay Packers defensive back. “But his measurables weren’t over the top; that’s how he ended up here, and same thing with Desmond. I think that’s how he ended up at Iowa. Yet they’re both really good football players. If you throw a ball near them, they’re probably going to grab it, one hand or whatever. Somehow they’ll come down with it.”
But Ferentz offers no comparisons for King with Hyde or any other player, at least until next year.
“We’ll let him finish his career before we judge him,” Ferentz said.
— Max Allen (@maxpallen) April 21, 2016