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Desmond King talks about his role in lifting up Hawkeyes and his return to a captain role.

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — Desmond King is a captain again for the Iowa football team.

It seems like an obvious designation for someone who is both a senior and the best player the Hawkeyes have.

But for the past two games — a narrow victory at Rutgers and a narrow home loss to Northwestern — King was not among the Iowa quartet marching hand-in-hand to midfield for the pregame coin toss.

Iowa’s four captains are selected each week by a secret ballot of the team’s 16-member leadership group. King was voted a captain for the first three Saturdays of what has become a troubled Hawkeye season, but, for whatever reason, not the next two. He downplayed the importance of that, denying that it bothered him.

But in a lengthy interview session with reporters Tuesday, King repeatedly spoke of the vital role the Hawkeye captains must play in turning around a disappointing 3-2 season.

“Having that as something that defines you is very significant and something that I take heart in,” King said of being a captain.

“The leadership has to start with our best players and it has to start with our captains, the leaders. We need our best players competing at our best. We need our older guys leading the way for the younger guys and that’s the only way to get everybody on board and moving as one train.”

The problems Iowa has encountered this season are numerous — leaky pass protection, a rush defense that has been getting gassed and gashed, enough yellow flags in crucial situations to become a red flag.

King, last year’s Jim Thorpe Award winner as the nation’s best cornerback, has been outstanding throughout. Teams rarely dare to pass in his direction, and when they do, the yards gained are minimal. King made four tackles and broke up two passes in Saturday’s 38-31 loss to Northwestern, another quietly masterful performance that is getting overlooked because of some of the ugly play around him.

He also returned seven kickoffs and punts for 162 yards, nearly breaking two for touchdowns. But King said Tuesday, as Iowa (3-2, 1-1) prepares for an 11 a.m. Saturday showdown at Minnesota (3-1, 0-1), that he needs to do even more to help his team.

“I feel like I have to communicate better. Plays on the field, there’s some stuff that I can clean up myself,” King said. “There’s certain things where I need to execute on the return. Just by springing them free. I gave up a couple touchdowns that I could have sprung out there just by slipping.

“I feel like our returns are one step away.”

Then there’s this from King, on his role in helping get his team back on track after two losses and one lackluster win in the past three games:

“Being the captain. Playing the best I can when my best is needed. And I’m doing my part. Now I have to put that effect on other people. I have to bring everyone else up.”

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That sure sounds like leadership, and the Hawkeyes can use some as they head into the meat of their schedule suddenly facing an uphill battle to repeat as Big Ten West champions.

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz understands King’s value to his team, captain or not. King is an elite player, a likely first-round NFL Draft pick, who toils every week as if his position is in jeopardy.

“One of the things I really appreciate about Desmond, I don't think he's missed a snap since last year. He's out there every day in practice,” Ferentz said. “He's doing all he can, and that's all we ask of every player. But he's certainly stepping up as a returner, did that a year ago. I think that indicates he was an unselfish guy that wants to play hard and try to help the team.”

For King, that means keeping everybody else’s heads in the game while he patiently waits for a rare chance to make a game-changing play. Intercepting eight passes as he did last year seems out of the question. Opposing quarterbacks aren’t inclined to challenge him. That in itself is a big challenge.

“You’ve got to stay really ready and can’t go to sleep on anything. You’ve just got to be anticipating the ball coming your way every down,” said King, who is without an interception this season.

“I think that’s just their game plan, keeping the ball from my way. And that’s what they’ve got to do and that’s what teams are going to do to win the game.”

King could have entered the NFL Draft after his junior year. Some experts pegged him as a first-round choice. He had two more pressing goals.

“I came back this year to get my education and to lead this team the right way,” King said.

He’ll fulfill the first part on Dec. 16, two days after his 22nd birthday, when he graduates with a degree in African-American studies and broadcast journalism. He is justifiably proud that he saw that through.

“Coming from where I’m from, I have to set a tone, set a status of an African-American male leaving out of the inner-city of Detroit to go to college and graduate,” King said.

King plans to participate in the graduation ceremony. The question is whether he’ll also be preparing for a bowl game. That will depend, in part, on how effectively he can rally his teammates around him.

“Our defense is in a great mood right now, just moving forward,” King insisted. “We don’t dwell on the past. We take ownership of our mistakes and we move on. We correct them.”

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