Left off the preseason all-Big Ten Conference team and later voted the nation's best defensive back ... that's been Desmond King's junior season in a nutshell.
King on Thursday night became Iowa’s first defensive player to win a major individual honor in 58 years, collecting the Jim Thorpe Award.
The cornerback’s path to the Thorpe, revealed during a live ESPN broadcast from Atlanta, was a combination of clutch, workmanlike and spectacular play.
All of King’s eight interceptions this season were important – starting with his first, a pickoff of Iowa State’s Sam Richardson in the fourth quarter to help the Hawkeyes seal a 31-17 win at Jack Trice Stadium on Sept. 12. Of course, it was that night that King’s importance as the Hawkeyes’ primary return man was underscored – his 34-yard run-back on a punt setting up Iowa’s go-ahead TD.
A week later, King picked off two passes in front of Pittsburgh star receiver Tyler Boyd, and the junior’s season was just beginning to take off. His two interceptions Oct. 3 at Wisconsin helped fuel one of Iowa’s biggest wins of the season, 10-6 in the Big Ten Conference opener at Camp Randall Stadium. That sterling defensive performance helped topple a key domino in Iowa’s historic 12-0 regular season.
The most electric of King’s eight interceptions was his seventh – in the fourth quarter against Maryland, with the Hawkeyes holding onto a 24-7 lead. He read the pass formation perfectly, cut in front of Perry Hills’ pass and not only caught it, but juked and sprinted 88 yards for a clinching touchdown at Kinnick Stadium.
“Once I saw the formation, everything just played in my hands,” King said then. “I just went straight to the reception area.”
But beyond the flash of tying Nile Kinnick (1939) and Lou King (1981) for the school record for interceptions was a skill set that helped the Hawkeyes in multiple ways. He not only is averaging 25.6 on kick returns and 12.7 on punts, he is tied for fifth for the team with 67 tackles – and has been one of the guys responsible for Iowa improving on its edge defense against the run. On top of that, he was physical. His hard tackle of Alex Erickson on Oct. 3 knocked out Wisconsin's top wide receiver for the second half.
What makes King’s journey to the Thorpe almost more improbable is that this is only his third year of college after a lightly recruited high school career at Detroit’s East English Village Prep School.
“I had a lot to study, learning the defense,” King said. “That’s just where I was trying to get my feet wet and learning the defense.”
The biggest drama remaining for King after the Jan. 1 Rose Bowl will be whether he turns pro or not. He has said he would wait until after the season to decide, but ESPN’s Joe Schad reported on Twitter Wednesday night from Atlanta that “King told me he is leaning toward retuning for his senior season.”
King beat out Duke’s Jeremy Cash and Florida’s Vernon Hargreaves on Thursday to become Iowa’s first major defensive award winner since defensive lineman Alex Karras won the 1957 Outland Trophy.
Iowa senior center Austin Blythe was also one of three finalists for the Rimington Trophy on Thursday night, awarded to the nation’s top center. But the Williamsburg native was beaten out by (Michigan State’s Jack Allen or Alabama’s Ryan Kelly.)