SEATTLE — Since his former star pupil’s stellar NFL combine workouts, Washington co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach Jimmy Lake has been peppered with calls, texts and questions from current NFL coaches and scouts. Usually the exchange goes something like this:
“So, could Kevin King play safety?”
Lake’s reply is always the same: “Yes. Go watch film from 2014.”
“What about nickel?”
Lake: “Yes, he can do that, too. Go find film from 2015.”
“And then he knows outside cornerback, too, right?”
Lake: “Yep. Watch 2016.”
Suffice it to say that should King ever need to type out a paper résumé, he should list “versatility” at the top of his skills section.
For most of the 2016 college football season, talk of the stellar Washington defense was dominated by two names: cornerback Sidney Jones and safety Budda Baker. Given their numbers and All-American accolades, that’s not surprising. Heck, even rookie Taylor Rapp got more pub than King, earning Pac-12 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year honors. But Lake knew what the Huskies had in King, a 6' 3", 200-pound defensive back whose length, athleticism and instincts caused all sorts of problems for opposing offenses.
“When we got here he was a safety, and while I thought corner was his natural position, we kept him there first,” Lake says. “Then moved him to corner as a junior, and he played more nickel, which really allowed him to show off his athletic ability. He really clogged the lane with his 6' 3" frame. Quarterbacks are trying to throw down the seam and he’s just knocking the ball away, picking it off and covering up slots. I had never thought of having somebody of that length play over the slot. But after we repped it a few times I was like, ‘Uh, yeah, this setup is pretty good.’”
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King thought about leaving for the NFL after 2015, but got feedback from scouts that he should return to school and play more outside corner, the position he’s most likely to play in the pros. Lake wanted to make the move, too, partially to give King an opportunity to build up a highlight reel at that position but also because he knew it would help the Huskies. King made the move and shined: One of his personal favorite highlights came in UW’s 66–27 win at Cal, when King was beat on a deep route that pushed the Bears into the red zone, then responded with back-to-back deflections to keep Cal from scoring. Though he was often overshadowed by teammates, Lake knew that when King’s time came, he’d leave an impression.
So when King went to the NFL combine in February, ran a 4.43 40-yard dash, posted a 39.5 vertical and ran the fastest three-cone drill (6.56 seconds) of anyone in Indianapolis, Lake wasn’t surprised. Neither was King. But everyone else—well, that’s another story.
“After the combine NFL scouts are going, ‘Oh my gosh, who is this guy?!’ Well, I knew who we had,” Lake says. “We had the two best cornerbacks in the Pac-12.”
One of those cornerbacks will be watching from the sidelines when the 2017 NFL season kicks off, as Jones suffered a torn Achilles tendon at Washington’s pro day back in early March. With Jones on the mend, King has inched his way up draft boards and is projected as a first- or second-round pick next week. Lake and King say that would have happened even without Jones’s injury. It’s not that Jones’s absence has suddenly made way for King—Jones maintains he’s the best corner in the draft. Instead, people are finally seeing what Lake saw when he arrived at Washington in 2014: “Wow, this guy can really do some stuff.”
And to think, he was almost a basketball player.
“Growing up I knew I was going to be something but man, if I’d had known I was going to be tall!” King moans, laughing at the memory of his childhood dream to one day play in the NBA.
King loved every sport as a kid in Oakland, playing football, basketball and baseball. Competition was what he craved most, and he found a fit at cornerback, where every snap provided an opportunity to go one-on-one. He loved hoops, but his height presented problems. It hurt him in football, too, at least for a while. Like most kids, King asked to play quarterback, but his coach told him that at just 5' 7", he wouldn’t be able to see over the defensive line, and he should stick to the secondary.
That was his freshman year at Bishop O’Dowd High School. By his junior season, King had shot up to 6' 2". He laments that he should have kept playing baseball—he was a damn good shortstop—but wonders how much harder it would have been with all those extra inches. A natural cornerback, King was regularly torched in backyard games by the second-best receiver he’s ever seen: His older brother, T.J. a former wideout at UC Davis. (Kevin says top receiver status goes to former teammate John Ross, another former Washington standout projected as a first-round pick this year.)
He doesn’t get beat much anymore. The three-year starter was an anchor in 2016 for one of the best defenses in the country, notching 44 total tackles, grabbing two picks and helping UW to its first-ever College Football Playoff appearance, where the Huskies lost to Alabama in the Peach Bowl semifinal.
Though he grew up a Raiders fan, King has spent the last four years studying the play of Richard Sherman, a corner with similar physical makeup. (Sherman is 6' 3", 195 pounds.) King admires how with Sherman, “you don’t beat him on the same thing twice.” He credits Sherman’s high football IQ for that, and believes that in time, he can be the same type of player. In the last couple weeks, a handful of mock drafts have King going to Seattle. King says that would be a great fit because not only could he learn from a veteran like Sherman, but his girlfriend, who still lives in Seattle, would appreciate him coming back to the Emerald City, too.
Like Sherman, King is also known for speaking up. He has a wide variety of interests outside of football, including a clothing line, Always Original, that he runs with two teammates. He describes it as “a movement to promote originality and creativity, giving guys a platform to show off their talents, so people don’t just think of us as jocks.”
Lake believes King’s leadership is an underappreciated facet of his game. He points to a day during UW’s 2016 fall camp, when the Huskies were turning in a lackluster practice. King abruptly stopped play, gathering his teammates in the middle of the field and explaining that this was unacceptable and that they’d better finish right. Lake also loves that King has a life outside of football, noting King’s passion for social justice issues and his ability “to carry on a conversation about almost anything.”
But mostly, he loves that King loves football, as evidenced by his hunger and determination to learn three positions during his Washington career.
“Really, there’s not a position on the back end that he can’t play,” Lake says.
NFL teams are catching on to that, too.