IOWA CITY, Ia. – Kirk Ferentz’s re-commitment to establishing difference-making special teams in the Iowa football program wasn’t all about fundamentals.
There was some flash in the plan, too, and his name is Desmond King.
The grand King experiment – exposing one of the team’s top two defensive players in an injury-risk role as the Hawkeyes’ primary kickoff and punt returner – has paid off handsomely through the first one-third of the 2015 season.
King’s stats as a return-man are excellent, but more than that he’s given the Hawkeyes a game-breaking option that Big Ten Conference opponents – starting Saturday with Wisconsin (11 a.m., ESPN) – must account for.
“All you have to do is get him started,” Ferentz said following Saturday’s 62-16 rout of North Texas, “and you've got a chance.”
King has been a game-changer. Of his six returns for 180 yards Saturday, five led to Iowa touchdowns. In doing so, he become just the fourth Big Ten player in the last 20 years to accumulate more than 100 kickoff-return yards and 70 punt-return yards in a game.
This is a noted philosophy shift under Ferentz, who said in 2013 after getting burned by a Michigan State fake punt, “We may never return a punt again.” He was serious.
With King, the fair catch is a last resort.
“I keep peeking to see how far the gunners are, and (confirm) they’re really not in the way," King said. "Every time I’ve got a chance, I’m going to get the ball and get downfield.”
Consider North Texas coach Dan McCarney impressed – and not just with King’s return prowess. He also leads the Hawkeyes with three interceptions. Surely, 19th-ranked Wisconsin has taken notice.
“The returner, obviously is going to be playing a lot of years beyond Iowa if he stays healthy, God willing,” McCarney said. “He’s going to have a long career in the NFL. He’s that kind of guy.”
Meanwhile, King has been glad teams are choosing to kick at him.
“I am surprised,” King said. “It’s helping us out, so that’s a good thing.”
The junior cornerback unleashed a career-long 38-yard punt return Saturday that set up the Hawkeyes for a short field (26 yards) and a 14-0 first-quarter lead. But Iowa might not be 4-0 without his return-game electricity the past two weeks.
At Iowa State late in the fourth quarter of a 17-17 game, King fielded a Colin Downing punt at his own 16 and juked at least three Cyclone defenders to break free on a 36-yard return. That set up Iowa at midfield with 6:08 to play on what became the winning touchdown drive in a 31-17 win.
A week later after Pittsburgh tied the score 24-24 in the final minute, King chased down a bouncing ball at his own 3 and shimmied his way up the right sideline for 27 yards. Without that creative return to set up Iowa the 30 with 44 seconds left, Ferentz admitted his play-calling probably wouldn’t have been as aggressive in what led to Marshall Koehn’s walk-off 57-yard field goal.
“He’s an athlete,” running back Jordan Canzeri said. “We just knew from the beginning of the offseason, that when he was going to get his hands on the ball that he was able to make those plays.
“Just to see him open things up and create a spark and be that guy to bring some excitement to the sideline, it’s really cool to see his hard work pay off.”
King has 131 punt-return yards on seven 2015 attempts; Iowa totaled 123 as a team in 2014. His 18.7-yard average is tied for 13th nationally (but tied for fourth among individuals with at least seven returns). His 22.8-yard average on kickoff returns, which includes a zero against Iowa State, ranks third in the Big Ten.
Iowa auditioned a lot of guys to return punts after going with safer options a year ago (Matt VandeBerg and Riley McCarron). And the kick-return job was opened after Jonathan Parker’s TaxSlayer Bowl gaffe. On Iowa’s media day, special-teams contributor LeVar Woods said a look at King’s high school highlight tape (in which he scored 33 touchdowns in a variety of ways as a senior) put him at the front of the coaches' list.
But while it’s worked out in the last 2½ games, the experiment started choppy. Ferentz even admitted he considered making a change after King looked shaky vs. Iowa State, including a botched kick-return when he tried fielding a ball while going out of bounds at the 2-yard line.
King has since validated his coaches’ initial decision – and the one to stick with him.
“I’m feeling more comfortable,” King said. “I feel like we have a good advantage on our punt return and kick return, and it’s taken an effect on the team.”
IOWA AT NO. 19 WISCONSIN
When, where: 11:01 a.m. Saturday, Camp Randall Stadium, Madison, Wis.
TV: ESPN (announcers: Steve Levy, Brock Huard and Shannon Spake)
The line: Wisconsin is favored by 6.5 points.