Hawkeyes' daring duo of cornerbacks ready to shine

Mark Emmert

IOWA CITY, Ia. — The best cornerback tandem in the Big Ten Conference stood shoulder to shoulder this week in Iowa’s football facility confidently answering questions from reporters.

Greg Mabin’s shoulder was a primary topic, and he wasted no time proclaiming himself healthy and ready for his senior season after labrum surgery kept him out of spring practices.

Iowa cornerbacks Greg Mabin (left) and Desmond King celebrated a stop in last year's Big Ten championship game.

Desmond King, happy to have his running partner back in action, had an even bigger proclamation.

“Our goal is to be the best defense in the Big Ten, and if you’re the best defense in the Big Ten then everybody in their position should be the top dogs,” King said, expanding on a question about whether Mabin and he were the top duo in the league to issue a challenge to the entire unit.

Or was it a challenge to the league?

King is the undisputed star of Iowa’s defense, coming off a junior season that netted him the Jim Thorpe Award and consensus all-American honors, thanks to eight interceptions and another 13 pass breakups. Quarterbacks will be hesitant to throw in his direction.

That will increasingly shift the pressure to Mabin, a converted wide receiver who is coming into his own as a ball hawk thanks to his dissection of film at King’s side. Mabin had two picks and eight pass breakups last season, playing with a nagging shoulder injury that dated to a dislocation suffered in his junior year of high school in Florida.

“If I was other teams, I would throw it my way, too. I wouldn’t want to throw it against the Jim Thorpe winner,” Mabin said. “Going into the season, I’m already going to be expecting that. I’m going to watch a lot more film when it gets closer to that time.

“It’s just a challenge that I have to step up to.”

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The ability of King and Mabin to swallow up receivers may be the key to Iowa’s defense, and its season. The Hawkeyes have four relatively untested sophomores on the depth chart at defensive end, the biggest unknown on that side of the ball. Cornerbacks who can force opposing quarterbacks to hang onto the ball a split-second longer would certainly ease the transition to life in the Big Ten for the novice pass-rushers.

Mabin believes being sidelined during practices this spring actually leaves him in a better position to play his part.

“From a mental aspect, yeah. It gave me a lot more time to get in the film room and it made me act as another coach out there,” Mabin said.

“Most of the film I was watching was on (King). He’s the best and they teach you to learn from the best. … He’s so patient at the line and he’s so good at getting his hands in the right spot every single time and that’s what makes him so great. When he’s able to get hands and pretty much control the receiver at the line.”

King has been impressed by the response he’s seen from Mabin after taking a great deal of ribbing for moving from offense to defense.

“I would say his competitiveness. And that’s something that he’s really worked on ever since he switched over to a cornerback position,” King said of the biggest improvement he’s noticed in Mabin. “Guys were telling him he wasn’t a good receiver, that’s what (defensive backs) are for. DBs can’t catch, things like that. And he’s proven them wrong with the interceptions that he’s caught, his toughness, playing somebody one-on-one with no help, things like that. And it shows tremendously out there on the field.”

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Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz acknowledged the importance of his cornerback duo while cautioning that a summer full of hard work must come before any talk of greatness.

“We have two guys that have a lot of game experience, a lot of success out there. But if they’re not improving it’s not realistic for us to think we’re going to have a good team this year,” Ferentz said. “We’re counting on that.”

King said his short-term goal is to be a repeat all-American, but that he’s looking forward to seeing mistakes he made on film and finding ways to correct them. The long-term goal is to get back to the Big Ten title game, and to earn a better result than last December’s 16-13 loss to Michigan State.

“That’s the mentality that we have as a secondary, as a defense and as a whole team,” Mabin said.