IOWA CITY, Iowa – Iowa junior cornerback Desmond King isn’t just a talented football player, but also one with something to prove still to this day.
“That’s part of his driving force, he’s playing with a chip on his shoulder,” said Rod Oden, who was King’s high school football coach at East English Village Prep in Detroit.
That chip, along with King’s immense skills, are wreaking havoc on opponents.
He has five interceptions in five games, all of which have been victories for the 5-0 and 23rd-ranked Hawkeyes, who will face 4-1 Illinois on Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.
Two of his interceptions came during this past Saturday’s 10-6 victory at Wisconsin, while two more came during the 27-24 victory over Pittsburgh on Sept. 19 at Kinnick Stadium.
Neither the Badgers, nor the Panthers recruited King much in high school and they never came close to offering him a scholarship.
Pat Narduzzi is in his first season as the Pittsburgh head coach. But he was the long-time defensive coordinator at Michigan State before that.
So to say that King had something to prove against Pittsburgh would be an understatement. He was determined to rub it in Narduzzi’s face for not believing he could play big-time college football.
“It was a big deal for him to play Pitt because coach Narduzzi was the defensive coordinator at Michigan State and they didn’t think he was a defensive player in high school,” Oden said of King, who was named the Big Ten co-Defensive Player of the Week on Monday.
It’s the same situation with Illinois, whose coaches also didn’t believe in King enough to offer him a scholarship. Tim Beckman was fired as the Illinois head coach shortly before the start of the season, but Tim Banks still has his job as co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach.
“You go on down the list with Illinois this week with coach Beckman and coach Banks were pretty much non-believers,” Oden said. “They recruited him hard, but in the end, they took another kid over him.
“He hasn’t forgotten those things. So he’s extra aggressive in games like that. He understands that he’s trying to win for Iowa. But he’s also trying to make a statement to say, `you overlooked me back when you thought the bigger, faster stronger kid was better.”’
In fairness to Illinois and Michigan State, none of the other Big Ten schools except Iowa offered King a scholarship. He committed to Ball State in August 2012, but then decided to explore other options.
The Hawkeyes became the leader, and an easy choice for King, once it became clear that Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz was willing to offer him a scholarship.
King committed to Iowa in late January 2013, about a month after fellow Detroit native and defensive back recruit Delano Hill had switched him commitment from Iowa to Michigan, where he now starts at safety.
“I often had to ask coaches, `do you want a football player because that’s what he is; he’s a football player,”’ Oden said of King.
King is rapidly becoming one of the best stories to happen under Ferentz.
Five interceptions in five games, along with several nifty punt and kick returns, will have that kind of effect.
King has turned into the ultimate playmaker, his versatility and his ability to shift field position as a return specialist, both key factors in Iowa being undefeated. You could make a strong case for King being the Big Ten’s best defensive back, which says a lot, considering the talent in Ohio State’s secondary.
King’s rise has been steady and spectacular at the same time.
He started 12 games as a true freshman in 2013 and performed well enough that Jordan Lomax switched from cornerback to safety because Lomax knew there would be no getting past King, who now has 30 starts under his belt.
King’s success comes as no surprise to Oden. He knew exactly what Iowa was getting when King signed with the Hawkeyes.
“What he is accomplishing right now is not surprising to me at all,” Oden said. “He’s a gamer, a guy that is going give you his best effort on Saturday afternoons and a consummate team guy, whatever is needed for the team.”
As a recruit, the 5-foot-11, 200-pound King had some shortcomings, including being too short in the opinion of most coaches. He also didn’t have blazing speed.
“Everybody wanted the six-foot corner, the long, rangy guy and everything like that,” Oden said. “And he wasn’t. He was 5-11, or right around there. And they didn’t want to take a shot.
“Ironically, I remember Pitt recruited him saying that we need guys that we can beat Florida State with, long, rangy guys that can play the whole length of the field. And I said, `well, I don’t have a six-foot corner, but I’ve got arguably one of the best high school football players you’ll ever come up against.”’
Ferentz was willing to overlook what King didn’t have and trust what he did have, which was the reputation as a playmaker. King was a force on both offense and defense as a high school senior, rushing for over 2,000 yards and intercepting seven passes. King finished his high school career with 29 interceptions, which is a state record in Michigan.
“He has the intangibles, he’s instinctive,” Oden said in regard to what is at the root of King’s playmaking ability. “He does a great job with playing the ball in the air, almost like a wide receiver would. When the ball is in the air, he has that mindset that it’s my ball, it belongs to me and I’m coming down it.
“But the instincts he has, he has some things you can’t teach as a coach. And he’s had that even before I had him as a running back and defensive back, just understanding field and boundary relationships, understanding down and distance, understanding how to bait the quarterback into one coverage and then jumping the route on the next coverage. So he understands the chess part of the game.”
King was such a force in high school that opponents adjusted their game plans in hopes of limiting his impact.
“He just finds himself around the ball,” Oden said. “We played him at free safety because teams refused to throw at him. So he neutralized half of the field when he was at cornerback. But in order for us to get the most out of him, we had to play him in the middle of field.”
King’s decision to attend Iowa has opened a recruiting pipeline to his high school, considering Iowa’s 2016 recruiting class includes two players from East English Village Prep – defensive ends Cedrick Lattimore and Chauncey Golston. King’s success as a Hawkeye is appealing to kids from his high school because it shows that you can thrive at a school besides Michigan and Michigan State.
Former Iowa defensive back Micah Hyde, who now plays for Green Bay Packers, acknowledged King’s greatness on Twitter after Iowa’s 10-6 victory at Wisconsin this past Saturday, saying that Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker was molding another star in the secondary.
“Coach Parker producing another one. He’s the man,” Hyde said on Twitter.
King fits Ferentz’s description of a story. Ferentz uses the word story to describe an unheralded recruit who defies the odds by achieving stardom as a Hawkeye. The list of stories under Ferentz is long and impressive, names such as Dallas Clark, Bob Sanders, Brad Banks, Robert Gallery, Marshal Yanda, Chad Greenway and Brandon Scherff among others.
“For us to get better, I always talk about our best guys — our most experienced guys — have to play their best football. And he’s a great illustration of that,” Ferentz said following Saturday’s win. “He played solid last year, but he’s clearly playing a little bit different level right now.
“(He’s) been real opportunistic with the picks, doing a good job in the return game. He’s playing hard in coverage and for the most part doing a good job on the perimeter runs.”
King learned after the Wisconsin game that he only needs three interceptions to tie the school’s single season record of eight, which is held by Lou King (no relation) and Nile Kinnick. Having a chance to match or surpass anything that Kinnick accomplished on the football field speaks for itself. It’s the stuff of legends.
“That’s nice; it’s a little motivation,” King said after learning where he stood. “It’s a goal now. I’m setting that as my goal to get past that and just help the team out as much as I can.”
Already with a chip and now a goal to surpass Nile Kinnick, it’ll be fun seeing how this story plays out, although, Iowa’s opponents probably would disagree.