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IOWA CITY — Nicknames just sort of happen and, as tempting as it might be, you simply can’t give yourself one. It just doesn’t work that way.
After the Hawkeyes won at Wisconsin last season in a game that was a three-hour match of arm wrestling, cornerback Desmond King kind of learned this lesson. In his exuberance — it was Iowa’s first victory over the Badgers since 2009 — King proclaimed “We’re sending a message to the Big Ten. We want to let them know the bullies of the Big Ten are back.”
It sounded great and totally fit. King, who snared two of his school-record tying eight interceptions against the Badgers, said what he felt, but that whole “don’t give yourselves a nickname” thing.
The “Bullies of the Big Ten” is a nickname Michigan linebacker Carl Diggs put on the Hawkeyes going into the 2003 game between the two schools. It was organic and bestowed. Also, Iowa offensive line coach Brian Ferentz was a freshman center on the 2002 team that squeezed the nickname out of Michigan.
Ferentz heard the “Bullies” comment and just a few weeks later told Sports Illustrated, “To me, we’re not back. We’re trying to get back, but until somebody else says The Bullies of the Big Ten are back, you’re not. You don’t give yourself a nickname.”
King later walked that one back. And so, no, you won’t hear Iowa’s secondary, which comes as credentialed as any in the Big Ten or the country, give itself a cool nickname like “Sky Raiders of the Great Plains” or “You can’t throw the ball here, mister” or “Ice Station Zebra.”
“We just kind of keep that among ourselves,” senior cornerback Greg Mabin said with a laugh. “We have a couple of different things we might breakdown on or joke about here and there, but we’re not trying to be like the show or anything like that. We don’t want to be a bunch of individuals out there, we just like to keep it among ourselves.”
Here are some nickname worthy factlets that Iowa’s secondary will take into its season opener this Saturday against Miami (Ohio).
— You have to start with King, the reigning Thorpe Award winner (nation’s top defensive back). He picked off eight passes last season (tying a school record held by Nile Kinnick and Lou King). He also was a consensus all-American and shocked most if not all of the football world when he announced in January that he planned to return for his senior season at Iowa.
— Mabin started his career as a skinny wide receiver from Florida whose only other college offers coming out of Calvary Christian Academy in Fort Lauderdale were Tulane and Jacksonville State. He made the switch to corner and now the 6-2, 200-pounder is going into his third year as a starter with 26 career starts and three interceptions under his belt.
— Strong safety Miles Taylor is entering his second season as a starter. Last season, he finished sixth on the team with 69 tackles.
On Tuesday, head coach Kirk Ferentz named Taylor as one of the veterans who made great strides from 2015 to 2016.
— Free safety Brandon Snyder is the new guy. The 6-1, 210-pounder looks like a classic bruiser at the position, but is the unknown commodity in his first season as starter.
This is what Iowa’s offense faced for the 29 practices of fall camp. This is why Ferentz groused last week about a lack of explosive plays during camp.
“They were,” quarterback C.J. Beathard said about explosive plays being hard to come by in camp. “When you’re going against good corners like that, it helps our receivers improve on getting off and getting open. It helps me improve as a quarterback and passer, getting balls into tight windows. Ultimately, it will help our offense.”
There are the obvious benefits of an experienced secondary, but beyond that, there’s the sure tackling (King, Taylor and Mabin finished fifth, sixth and seventh on the team in tackles) and there’s the confidence defensive coordinator Phil Parker has in leaving King and Mabin on an island, one-on-one against a receiver.
“Coach Parker has put a lot of trust in Desmond and me this year,” Mabin said, “whether that’s putting us on islands or expecting us to make plays when we need to make plays.”
Of course, interceptions are what fuel defensive backs. The Hawkeyes led the Big Ten last season by a decent margin, picking off 19 passes compared to 15 for Michigan State. After King, linebacker Josey Jewell had four, Mabin two and safeties Taylor and Jordan Lomax had one apiece among others.
“That’s one thing we really try to feed into is turnovers,” King said. “We really try to get turnovers for our team. That’s going to be a game-changer for us this year, us making those kinds of plays.”
Beathard did say he did take a couple of shots King’s way during camp. Ferentz said explosive plays were hard to come by and joked that he hoped the offense was saving those for the season.
King and Mabin have combined for 64 career starts. These guys know what they’re doing. Throwing the ball against the Hawkeyes isn’t going to be easy.
Where do you attack this secondary?
“I don’t know, I’m not an offensive coordinator,” Mabin said with a laugh. “I just have to say good luck to you.”
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