There wasn't a whole lot of news that came out of Iowa's football media day on Saturday—what did you expect?—but one interesting tidbit came from one of Iowa's best players. Here's the report from Chad Leistikow at HawkCentral:
Making your lock-down cornerback the lead kick returner is a risk. But Iowa thinks Desmond King in that role will provide the reward.
King approached the coaching staff to offer his services in the return game. There's injury risk that comes with returning kicks into a line of defenders looking to make a punishing tackle, but Iowa also needs more big plays wherever it can find them.
This is all backed up by additional quotes from LeVar Woods that you can find in the above report, so it's not as if King just made this up and is telling reporters whatever he wants (though now I'm dying for a "I'm the starting quarterback" from, like, Josey Jewell). And needless to say, it's welcome, especially in the punt game. Iowa managed a miserable 94 return yards from its actual punt returners (two blocked punt returns for TDs push the season total to 123) for the entire season; by way of comparison, Demornay Pierson-El dropped 121 yards on Iowa in the fourth quarter of the Nebraska game by himself.
Even with the two blocked punt returns, Iowa averaged 5.13 yards per return, good for 104th in the nation and dead last in the Big Ten. That's brutal, especially since the Hawkeyes were getting no help on the other side of special teams, 117th in net punting (and better than only the little purple team in the B1G). So major work is needed in the punt game, we know the punter competition is wide open, and this is how Iowa addresses the return situation.
And sure enough, King was a monster in the open field in his high school highlights. His ability to throw defenders off balance without losing forward momentum—a sleight with his hips here, a head fake there—looks like the sort of thing you see when Oregon is shredding some hapless opponent. It's crucial to success in the punt return game, where the first ten steps are about eluding tacklers, then it's about straight-forward speed. It's why you often see cornerbacks (hello Micah Hyde) and slot receivers (hello Kevonte Martin-Manley) find success in the punt return game. King is suited for it, and if the coaches are giving him an honest, patient shot at this, Iowa should be in line for a major upgrade in its return game from last year.
One other note: King also mentioned he'd be the primary kick returner, which doesn't seem like as good of a decision. The skill sets are different—kick returns are about getting to top speed as fast as possible and hitting the seam before the defenders can close it, as well as having the vision to correctly identify the lane rather than run into contact too early. There's no reason to think King's vision is lacking, but he's never looked like the fastest man on the team, and Iowa doesn't cultivate elite speed from its corners.
Moreover, Iowa's not in a position of need here. Jonathan Parker was just fine as a freshman in that role, and there's no reason to think he can't improve on the 22.1 yards per return he averaged as the primary return man. Yes, there was that abject disaster in the TaxSlayer Bowl, but it's not as if that's an integral part of his return game. It was one lousy decision.
So for that I hope the kick return job is still up for grabs, because until King flashes all-B1G ability as a kick returner as well as a punt returner (certainly plausible, but he needs to show it), it'll be hard to automatically assume he's an upgrade here too. Plus, most kickoffs come after opposing scores (and thus usually sustained drives). Parker would be expected to have fresher legs in those situations, no?
But we'll see. Season's still four weeks away. Well, less. Oh man, it's less than four weeks away.