Before cornerback Desmond King did so in the 2015 season, only two players in Iowa football history intercepted eight passes over the course of a single campaign. One is Nile Kinnick, for whom the Hawkeyes’ home stadium is named.
That should give you an indication of just how meaningful King’s breakout season was. And while he’s unlikely to have a venue named for him, King could make an intriguing case to get his moniker etched into a Heisman Trophy.
Now, King making a realistic run at the nation’s most prestigious honor requires several highly improbable variables going in his favor. After all, he was historically excellent in 2015 and failed to even finish in the top 10 among Heisman vote recipients.
But if King’s college career has proven nothing else, it’s that he’s adept at both defying expectations and taking strides to improve.
Even by just returning to Iowa for the 2016 season, King already defied some expectations. He could have foregone the remainder of his eligibility to pursue the NFL draft, a prospect head coach Kirk Ferentz seemed to support when discussing the possibility ahead of January’s Rose Bowl Game.
“You’re in one rare situation where you may never be in this position in your life where you’re going to win no matter what you do,” Ferentz said. “And it’s nice sometimes to be in a position where you can do what you want, not what you feel like you have to do.”
In the Hawkeye head coach’s estimation, King faced “a little different circumstance” in that he’d be making a sound choice either staying or going. His decision to stay buoys an Iowa defense that last year was instrumental in the Hawkeyes’ first Rose Bowl appearance in almost a quarter-century.
King was a vital centerpiece to last season’s efforts. The Hawkeyes ranked No. 19 nationally, allowing just over 20 points per game, and opponents completed just 53.4 percent of pass attempts on the King-led secondary.
Nevertheless, his omission from Heisman consideration suggests King would need to do even more in 2016. Only one defensive back has reached New York since Charles Woodson’s win in 1997: LSU safety Tyrann Mathieu in 2011.
King matched Mathieu’s 2011 output of eight forced turnovers — Mathieu’s came on two picks and six forced fumbles, functioning in a much different role for the Tiger secondary. Where the Honey Badger had King beat: electrifying special teams touchdowns that filled the obligatory Heisman highlight reel, and a national championship game appearance.
King functions as Iowa’s primary special teams weapon, so he should see opportunities to get in the end zone on returns in the fall. Add a punt return or two with another pick-six, like the 88-yarder he ran back against Maryland last season, and King will not be hurting for the proverbial Heisman moment.
As for that title game appearance, the Hawkeyes came a Michigan State drive away from making the College Football Playoff happen in King’s breakthrough campaign.
Iowa has holes to fill after turnover from its Rose Bowl roster. But the Hawkeyes retaining Greg Mabin in the secondary certainly helps, both in keeping the Hawkeye defense formidable, and allowing King opportunities to make plays individually. Mabin’s presence prevents opposing quarterbacks going exclusively to one side of the field, in an effort to avoid the dangerous King.
Moreover, the very real possibility, based on career trajectory to date, is that King simply takes another leap forward in 2016.
He picked off three passes in 2014, but Ferentz said King “got thrown in way before we thought he was ready.”
“He’s really taken the big step [in the 2015 season],” Ferentz said. “It’s a tribute to his work not only on the field but off the field and the maturity, and [the] things you hope older players exhibit.”
With King as one of its leaders, Iowa looks capable of defending its divisional crown and competing for the Big Ten championship. Should the Hawkeyes reach the College Football Playoff with a conference title in hand, and King’s production approach 2015 levels, he’d be awfully tough to exclude from New York.
And though the stadium name is accounted for, the University of Iowa just might need to find another landmark to name for Desmond King.