IOWA CITY, Iowa – As friends growing up in Detroit, Iowa cornerback Desmond King and Michigan cornerback Jourdan Lewis shared a passion for football and the ability to play it at a high level.
They were star players on the same youth football team in Detroit from the ages of 10 to 13, and now are star players in college, arguably the top two collegiate defensive backs in the country as seniors, and without question the top two cornerbacks.
King is the only Jim Thorpe Award winner to return to college, while Lewis earned numerous All-America accolades last season.
It is hard to find a preseason publication that doesn’t have King and Lewis both listed as the first-team all-America cornerbacks.
They’re linked by position, by their hometown and by their greatness.
But Lewis is willing to concede one thing at this point.
“What he was last year, he’s the best defensive back in the Big Ten, because as you saw, he was a ball hawk,” Lewis said of King at Big Ten Media Days last month in Chicago. “It was evident. There was no debate about it. He was the best last year and he’s trying to be the best this year, as many of us are.”
As the only Jim Thorpe Award winner to return to college, King will go where no other college defensive back has gone before.
He will try to improve on his near masterpiece from last season, which included tying the school single-season record with eight interceptions.
“He’s always been that type of playmaker,” Lewis said of King.
The two star cornerbacks went from being teammates in youth football to rivals in high school. King was a star running back and defensive back for East English Village Prep, while Lewis was a standout receiver and defensive back for Cass Tech.
Lewis was more heralded as a recruit, earning a four-star ranking and an early scholarship offer from Michigan.
Iowa was the only Big Ten school to offer King a scholarship, and it came late in the recruiting process.
“It’s like a competition going against each other in high school and now in college,” King said. “It’s the best to be up there at the same level with someone you knew when you were little.”
Playing for two different Big Ten schools hasn’t hurt their friendship.
“We talk often,” King said. “It’s a pretty good amount.”
Lewis paid tribute to King, and to their hometown, on social media shortly after King had won the Jim Thorpe Award last season.
“I ended up seeing a post on Twitter about that award,” King said. “He was kind of saying like Detroit just won the Jim Thorpe, our little league team, it was a shout out to them.”
King and Lewis both hit the ground running in college as neither was redshirted as a true freshman.
King started 12 games as a true freshman in 2013. His 69 tackles that season were the most by a freshman in the Big Ten.
Lewis appeared in eight games as a freshman at Michigan in 2013 before combining to start 20 games as a sophomore and junior, including 13 starts last season.
King credits the competition in Detroit for helping to sharpen his football skills and for making him a tough-minded defensive player.
“It’s very tough, Detroit ball is tough,” King said. “If you want to hit, defense is Detroit for sure. You see a lot of Detroit guys play defense. That’s for sure.”
King and Lewis will have a reunion of sorts when Iowa faces Michigan under the lights on Nov. 12 at Kinnick Stadium.
They might even square off as there is talk that both of them might have a chance to help on offense this season. King added both punt and kick returning to his job responsibilities last season and excelled at both.
King thought about skipping his senior season to enter the NFL Draft before deciding to return to college. He could’ve been an NFL rookie adjusting to a new level of competition, but instead is a wise veteran and arguably the best defensive back in college.
“To get him back and then just the expertise, being part of the team, all those intangible things besides what he does on the field, those are all positive things certainly,” said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz. “And I think it speaks well. And I’m not judging anybody, but I think he realized that there is something special about being a senior.”