Last season, Desmond King was the best defensive back in college football.
That usually means a ticket to the NFL, but King opted to return to Iowa for his senior season because he thinks he can be even better.
“My education was an important thing, and I have room for improvement,” King said last week during Big Ten Media Days. “There’s always time to get better.”
The decision whether to stick around for a senior season or head to the professional ranks is not an easy one — or so we all thought. According to Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz, King’s choice didn’t strike him as terribly difficult.
“I personally don't think it's tough at all,” the head coach said to some surprised faces at Media Days. “And I told Desmond basically the same thing I told (former Iowa offensive lineman) Brandon Scherff. From my vantage point there are few times in life where you get to do what you want to do. Not that you have to do or feel like you have to do. … When you're sitting in a position where you have a chance, you know your future's good no matter what you choose to do — you have an option to go to the NFL.
“And what I told both players was I was pretty confident when they're 26, 27, they were going to be really good players in the National Football League and contributing to whatever teams they were on. So that was out there. I think it's a given, pretty much a given for both those guys. 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 and always tells our team the most fun they'll ever have is in college. I think both those guys took it to heart.
“I know Desmond, it's really important to finish the degree work not only to him but his entire family. I think in both cases with Desmond and Brandon the messages they heard from their families was very positive towards staying in college. And the bottom line is you only get to be a senior twice in your life as an athlete, and those are really enjoyable, fulfilling years. And I think Desmond really appreciated that. I think he's excited about being back and also embracing the challenge of being a leader and being a better player than he was last year. It may not show up statistically, but being a better football player for us, that's something that we're all counting on.”
What is tough is envisioning how King can be even better than he was last season. As a junior, King ranked second in the country with eight interceptions and fifth with 21 passes defended, numbers that ranked first and second in the Big Ten, respectively. He earned All-Big Ten First Team honors and was named the winner of both the Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year Award and the Jim Thorpe Award, handed out annually to college football’s top defensive back.
King will have to deal with a challenge that often plagues high-profile defensive backs, and it’s a unique challenge considering his decision to put his NFL future on hold: How do you remain the best defensive back in college football if the other team doesn’t throw in your direction?
“I don’t think it will be hard (to have similar success to last season) because it’s not about what I did, (it’s about) the actions that I put out there on the field,” King said. “It’s not about just going out there and looking for a goal or aiming for a goal, it’s about going out there and playing, doing what I did before I got any of the accolades or the interceptions. It’s about your technique and your preparation throughout the week. That’s what got me to where I’m at, and I feel like that put me in a good position.”
King’s talent isn’t in doubt, and he was right to be honored as much as he was last season. He can also help in a variety of different ways, proving so by ranking third in the Big Ten in both punt-return and kick-return yards.
But, much like Iowa has to find a way to follow up a 12-0 regular season, King has to find a way to follow up his spectacular season — and prove he made the right decision by returning to school.