A year ago, Iowa cornerback Desmond King and Michigan’s Jourdan Lewis were virtually unknown nationally.
Phil Steele, the college football magazine publisher who dives more in-depth than any analyst, barely gave them a look.
His preseason All-Big Ten team listed four defensive backs on the first through fourth teams. King slid in on the third team and Lewis was not even mentioned, which meant there were at least eight conference DBs ahead of King and at least 16 ahead of Lewis.
This year, they’re the two first-team All-Big Ten cornerbacks and both are listed on one of his four All-American teams for the nation’s best players.
Because last year, out of nowhere, the pair from Detroit surged to the top of the nation.
King won the Thorpe Award as the nation’s best defensive back, with eight interceptions, one returned for a touchdown, and 13 pass-breakups.
Lewis was rated by Pro Football Focus as the nation’s best cornerback, setting a U-M record for passes defended and ended up with 20 breakups and two interceptions, one returned for a touchdown.
“It was exciting because we’re both from the same hometown and no one knew the top two cornerbacks in the country were going to be from the city of Detroit,” King said at the Big Ten media days in July. “I don’t think anybody would have known that coming into last year. That’s something we take pride in and we’re honored to have it.”
When they were young, Lewis and King had eyes on each other.
Neither was a big football player yet they saw something in each other in the city. So they pushed each other.
For nearly a decade, Lewis and King were connected.
King attended East English Village and Lewis went to Cass Tech but they were still bonded.
Different schools different paths, same friendship.
“I wouldn’t say a rivalry. It’s competitive,” King said. “Just like me and (Iowa QB) C.J. (Beathard), it’s a competitive relationship. Growing up with each other, we’ve been competing with each other for awhile now. High school, in college, playing against each other this year. Playing video games, basketball, everything. It’s always been that way.”
Even if there were doubters on the outside because of their size — both are under 6-feet tall — they believed in each other.
Lewis was much more highly-rated — a four-star prospect, he was the state of Michigan’s No. 4 player in the class of 2013 and King, thought to be barely a three-star running back, was No. 22 — but they ended up in the same place.
“That’s like my brother,” Lewis said. “We knew each other since we were 11, 12, since little league.”
When King arrived for the Chicago media days, Lewis was quickly at his room to greet him.
“That’s what kind of relationship we have,” King said. “We hit each other up and find out where each other’s at and how everybody’s doing, family like that. It’s like a brotherly bond as well.”
Sustaining that while being as competitive as they are reflects the bond many Detroit players hold, one that continues beyond their college decision.
For the first time this fall, they’ll truly face off as Michigan plays at Iowa Nov. 12, in a game that could have Big Ten title implications for both.
“It’s going to be special,” said Lewis, who joined King as two of the Big Ten’s top four kick returners as well last year. “We’re both seniors, we haven’t played each other since our freshman year. Honestly, I didn’t play that game, he did, he played very well. It’s a great feeling knowing you’re going to compete against one of your brothers and one of the city’s greats.”
Which could be an interesting subplot all season leading up that.
They push each other from a distance and though both have a similar perspective, more interested in the team’s success and their education than the football bottom line. They showed that in January, choosing to put off the NFL for a year and not declare early for the draft. The decisions were made independently — King considered it more seriously than Lewis — but now they’re free to give Detroit one more moment.
The question is, who has the edge?
“We’ve got to settle that,” said Lewis, who may play some receiver this year, meaning he could match up with King by November. “But playmaker? I’ve got to give it to him. On defense since high school, nobody can beat him, he’s the best. He had two seasons where he had 10 interceptions. I think he still holds the (state of) Michigan record for that. He’s been a playmaker since we were young.
“Hopefully, I’m going to take the Thorpe away from him. I’m going to work to.”
Matchup: Hawaii (3-10 in 2015) at Michigan (10-3).
When: Noon Saturday, Sept. 3.
Where: Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor.