Iowa cornerback one of three finalists for the Thorpe Award Rick Brown/HawkCentral
IOWA CITY, Ia. - As a cornerback, Desmond King plays on an island. He often faces the opponent’s top receiver. Best man wins.
It’s a position King dreamed of playing in the Big Ten as a kid growing up in Detroit, Mich.
“I’m thankful that Iowa gave me the opportunity to come here and display the talents I have,” King said. He is motivated by the challenge, and the results are being noticed. On Tuesday, King was named one of three finalists for the Jim Thorpe Award that goes to the nation’s top defensive back. He’s also one of 15 finalists for the Walter Camp Player of the Year Award.
The junior leads the nation with eight interceptions, which has also tied an Iowa record. He’s done all that while playing on an island, but he’s got company inside that No. 14 jersey.
King was a senior at East English Village Prep when his brother, Armon Golson, was shot and killed the night of Sept. 18, 2012. Golson was the older brother who taught Desmond how to set goals, and work to accomplish them.
“Whenever I’m out there, he’s out there,” King said. “And if he was alive, he would be here right now. It’s something I carry with me everywhere I go.”
King’s journey to Iowa wasn’t a straight line. This is a story of zig and zag, much like the routes receivers run against him. He set a Michigan high school record with his 29th career interception the week his brother died. He also rushed for 2,360 yards as a senior. King’s height – Iowa lists him at 5 feet 11 – left some recruiters skeptical. Other wondered about his speed.
Desmond first committed to Central Michigan, who recruited him as an athlete with no specific position. Then he flipped to Ball State, who recruited him as a cornerback. And then Phil Parker, Iowa’s defensive backs coach at the time and now the defensive coordinator, showed up at school one day.
King thought Parker was there to see Khalid Hill, now a junior tight end at Michigan. But King got called to the office, and Parker asked if he would like to make an official visit. King committed to Iowa on that visit, just weeks before signing day.
It didn’t take long for King’s college career to hit the accelerator, at a position Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz didn’t project. Ferentz looked at King and saw a safety. But when starting right cornerback Jordan Lomax injured a hamstring in the 2013 season opener against Northern Illinois, King replaced him. He’s started every game since.
“For a guy three months out of high school, that was pretty impressive,” Ferentz said. “And then he played very well out there, too. One thing about recruiting evaluations is that you’re never 100 percent. I certainly wasn’t on that one. I figured he would be a safety. He proved us wrong on that one. I’m glad he’s playing corner.”
King was the first true freshman to start in Iowa’s secondary since 2002. He remembers his initiation to college football very well.
“I honestly didn’t know I was getting in,” said King, who had been on the kickoff return team. “When I heard my name called, I was in shock. (Parker) jumped in my face and said, “Get out there.” It was my first experience, and I was a little nervous. I didn’t know what I was doing at the time.”
King survived his baptism by fire. He picked up his first three career interceptions as a sophomore, but treaded water more than taking his game to another level in 2014.
“His performance kind of leveled off,” Ferentz said. “The thing you hope for every player, whether it’s high school or the NFL, is that they improve as they go on. He didn’t play badly last year. It was just OK. Solid, maybe that’s a better descriptive word. He didn’t really see that incline.”
King said he was still trying to figure things out as a sophomore.
“I was still trying to emerge as a leader in the secondary,” King said. “There was a lot on my plate. Now I’ve figured it out. I’m more comfortable in what I’m doing.”
The proof is in the numbers. Eight interceptions have matched an Iowa record set by Nile Kinnick in 1939 and equaled by Lou King in 1981.
“He’s such a great athlete, with such a natural instinct for the game and where to be,” Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard said. “I go against him all the time. All spring it was, “OK, Des is over there, I’m not big on that matchup right now. I’ll play away from him.’ I’ve realized that. I think teams are starting to realize that as well.”
King also leads the team with 10 pass break-ups. And he ranks second in the Big Ten in kickoff returns (25.6 yards) and third in punt returns (12.7 yards).
“What’s really kicked in is his experience,” Ferentz said. “He also has a better understanding of how to take that experience and make it work better for him.”
Of the eight interceptions, Desmond’s favorite is his 88-yard return for a touchdown against Maryland. “It’s a blessing, to know you can get the ball in your hands and escape a lot of people,” King said.
King heads into Friday’s game at Nebraska a legitimate all-American candidate. But one question remains: will this be the last regular-season game of his college career?
He said a decision on whether to return for his senior season or enter the 2016 NFL Draft won’t be discussed until this season ends. King knows his mom, Yvette Powell, wants him to get his degree in mass communications. But King said she also knows the NFL is an option to consider.
“She understands, for sure,” King said. “At the same time, I want to live that college life. I want to come out there and see my mom on the field, at senior day.”
And getting that degree is something King wants, as much as a record ninth interception.
“I know a lot of people say you can always come back and get your degree, but it’s not just that,” King said. “If the team needs me, it’s about them. I care that much that I would stick around for another year to live that college experience with the rest of my team.”
Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.