Can Desmond King do the unthinkable and win the Heisman?
There has been one Heisman Trophy winner in the history of Iowa football – Nile Kinnick. The man the Hawkeyes named their home football stadium after won the luxurious award in 1939 as a halfback and quarterback. Iowa has had a lot of really good football players come through their school, but none have been able to stand out enough to be named the top player in the country.
Heading into the 2016 season there is some hope that Iowa could bring home the award after 77 years. Although, it lies on the shoulders of a senior defensive back – Desmond King.
Coming off his school-record eight interceptions last season, the 2015 Jim Thorpe Award winner is the favorite to take home that award again – given to the nation’s best defensive back. King was a likely top-10 pick in last year’s draft but opted towards staying for his senior year so he could become the first person in his family to earn a college degree. With the Hawkeyes coming off a historic regular season last year, Iowa and King should have their eyes and goals set even higher, in the case of King, the Heisman Trophy.
It’s a near impossible task for King. Since the award started in 1935, only one defensive player has ever taken home the award – 1997 Charles Woodson of Michigan, and even he played on offense a little. It’s an award that is historically given to the flashy positions – quarterbacks and running backs – with four wide receiver recipients sprinkled in throughout the years. In fact, since 2010, only five defensive players have even finished in the top-10. The last defensive back to do so was in 2011 when Tyrann Mathieu finished fifth.
During Mathieu’s Heisman hopeful season he forced five fumbles, intercepted two passes and had 76 total tackles. Mathieu was used as a blitzer more often and was more focused on making tackles and forcing the ball loose as his primary position was at safety. Still, his ability to lead LSU in tackles that year, despite being a defensive back, is very impressive.
More importantly, he produced in big games. In week one against Oregon – finished 12-2 on the year – Mathieu forced a fumble, returned it for a touchdown and recorded 10 tackles. He also recorded one of his two interceptions on the season and forced a fumble in LSU’s blowout win over a soon-to-be 10-3 West Virginia team. In Week 12 against Arkansas – finished 11-2 on the season – he forced a fumble, recovered two, recorded eight tackles and returned a punt for a touchdown.
The only big game that Mathieu failed to create a major highlight in was during their 9-6 win over Alabama as the top two teams in the nation faced off. Mathieu recorded five tackles, however, a forced fumble or big punt return late in the game to give LSU a lead in regulation would have helped his case a lot.
With that being said, King was able to stand out last season during their biggest games in the regular season. He intercepted two passes in their 10-6 defensive-battle win over Wisconsin and picked off a pass in their blowout win over Northwestern.
Luckily for King, the Hawkeyes schedule should seem a little more challenging to voters. Along with Wisconsin and Northwestern, Iowa travels to Penn State and hosts a very good FCS-school in North Dakota State, even without Carson Wentz, and have arguably the national title front-runner Michigan in Kinnick later in the season, along with Nebraska to end the regular season.
Compared to just two big games last season, Iowa will have six games where all eyes will be on them and Desmond King, especially with all the hype surrounding him heading into the season. It’s not to say that he needs to intercept two passes in each game, however, making a statement in each game is how he’ll make a case for himself to break the mold that defensive players can’t win the Heisman – highlight hit, create a turnover or a big return.
Every player has a Heisman moment, and King’s could very well be when Michigan comes into town. The game will be on national TV at night and has a chance to be where Gameday goes that week. The campus will be rocking all week and the buzz around potentially two undefeated teams will enormous. Against a historic school like Michigan, a coach like Jim Harbaugh and a potential nationally televised game, King will have a chance to put an exclamation point on his historic career at Iowa.
While the schedule is set up nicely for Iowa to gain respect as a football program and King to make a reasonable push at the Heisman, it’s only half the battle. To expect another eight interceptions from him might not be realistic. He didn’t enter last season with the notoriety he has this season, thus offenses will know not to challenge him.
We started seeing it at the end of last season as he didn’t intercept a pass in the last five games. Granted he still averaged 6.8 tackles per game, including 11 against Purdue in week 11. While interceptions are flashy and pop off the stat sheet, King doesn’t need to intercept eight passes again. If he can defend passes, rarely let in a touchdown and continue racking up tackles, he’ll have a strong enough resume to be considered.
Although, the deciding factor will be his impact on special teams. Mathieu returned two punts for touchdowns during his Heisman push and Charles Woodson recorded four non-defensive touchdowns.
Despite owning the fourth highest kickoff yards per return and second highest punt yards per return, King should be even better this upcoming season. Returning a couple of kicks for touchdowns makes him a more rounded player, and adds an extra spark to his already impressive highlight tape. It’s clear that voters want more than just defensive stats, and this is how King can provide that.
When it comes down to it, Desmond King winning the Heisman is a long shot. With quarterbacks like Deshaun Watson, Baker Mayfield and J.T. Barrett and running backs like Leonard Fournette and Dalvin Cook in the running, it’ll be hard for a defensive player to break through.
With that being said, King has every tool it takes for him to win the award. He’s well-known with a proven track record, should be even better on special teams and it’ll be hard to ignore his interception numbers if they’re anything like they were last season. With Iowa thin at the receiver position, having King take a couple snaps on that side of the ball would help his case, but you can’t blame Kirk Ferentz for wanting to make sure his star defensive back stays healthy.
While it might be unlikely, don’t count King out just yet.