Iowa-Michigan will be a cornerback showdown

Mark Emmert

CHICAGO — Desmond King and Jourdan Lewis didn’t choose to return to college just for this moment.

But there’s no doubt that the senior cornerbacks, arguably the two best in college football at that position, are eager to measure themselves against each other on Nov. 12 when Michigan visits Iowa.

Not only do King and Lewis trace their friendship back to the time they were 11-year-old teammates in the Detroit youth leagues, they also have been longtime rivals through the high school ranks and in one previous college meeting.

“It’s just a great feeling knowing that you’re going to compete against one of your brothers and one of the city’s greats,” Lewis, the Michigan star, said this week at Big Ten Conference football media days.

“I know it’s a question that’s been going around, who’s the best cornerback in the Big Ten or who’s going to be the best corner in the country?” added Iowa’s King. “This is a new year. We both have the opportunity to be the top guy in the country.”

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Michigan traveled to Iowa in 2013, when King and Lewis were freshmen, a 24-21 Hawkeyes victory. Lewis said he didn’t play in that game (the box score credited him with two assisted tackles) while King had a pair of pass breakups and was in on three stops.

By last year, both players were all-Americans. King got something Lewis did not, though — the Jim Thorpe Award, given to the nation’s best defensive back. Lewis joked that he was going to take that back this fall.

“I’m going to prepare my best to get that Thorpe, but as you know we are competitors and we both would say the same thing,” Lewis said.

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King has long been the one to pile up impressive statistics. At East English Village High School in Detroit, he set a Michigan prep record with 29 interceptions, reaching double-digits in back-to-back years. Lewis still shakes his head about that.

Lewis, meanwhile, helped his Cass Technical High team to back-to-back state titles and picked up stronger recruiting interest along the way. He stayed home to play for the Wolverines.

King had to look farther afield to find his Big Ten landing spot. It was former Hawkeye defensive tackle Carl Davis, who comes from the same Detroit neighborhood as King, who eased his mind about transplanting to Iowa.

Davis’s message, King recalled: “It’s a good place here. It’s a place that’s going to make you mature and find yourself and define who you are.”

After a junior season in which King picked off eight passes and became a consensus all-American, many believed he would leave Iowa for a shot at the NFL. He said no. There is unfinished business for King on the field after the Hawkeyes lost their final two games to finish 12-2, and he wanted to earn his degree in mass communications, which he will do in December.

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, thrilled to have King back, said the decision often isn’t that difficult for his players.

“It's one of those rare opportunities when you can do what you truly want to do, and every one of our NFL guys that comes back always tells our team the most fun they'll ever have is in college,” Ferentz said.

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King said it will truly be fun if he can help his Hawkeyes erase the bitter taste of season-ending losses to Michigan State in the Big Ten title game and to Stanford in the Rose Bowl.

“We left two games out there that could have defined what kind of team we were,” King said. “Missing out on the College Football Playoff and kind of blowing it on the big stage like the Rose Bowl.”

The Michigan game figures to go a long way toward determining Iowa’s status as a factor on the national scene. Led by second-year coach Jim Harbaugh, the Wolverines could be a top-5 team in that late-season contest.

King and Lewis will be key figures in that game. Both are lockdown corners. Both also return kicks. Lewis is even lobbying to play a little offense.

But which is the better player? Lewis flashed a big smile when asked.

“We’ve got to settle that. We’ve got to get some one-on-ones in after we play,” said Lewis, who has four interceptions and 28 passes broken up for his career at Michigan. “But playmaker? I’d give it to him, honestly. On defense? Since high school, nobody could beat him. He’s the best. … He’s been a playmaker since we were young and you’ve got to give it to him. He was the best defensive back last year and probably might be this year.

"But I’m going to work to be one of the best. We’ll see what happens.”

King was asked the same question but declined to take the bait. There’s an entire season yet to be played, he pointed out.

He did say this, though, when comparing his style of play to his friend, Lewis.

“He’s a good man-to-man cover guy. He reads hips very well, he gets out of his breaks real well,” King said.

“He does his thing without letting the receiver catch the ball. I think one thing about me, I don’t want the receiver to catch the ball either, but at the same time I want the ball. So that’s probably the difference between me and him. I’m going to go for the ball at all times and try to get that opportunity.”

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