GREEN BAY – The kid was talented. That much was obvious to Hardy Nickerson and the coaching staff at Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland.
Put Kevin King in press-man coverage, the opposing receiver wouldn’t get off the line. Need a big play on offense? Line King up in the slot, send him down the seam and watch defenders flail all the way down the field.
This kid was the real deal and the coaches knew it.
“As a player, you could see the length and the athleticism right off the bat,” said Nickerson, the former Packers linebacker who served as Bishop O’Dowd’s head coach from 2010-13.
“He had the ability to run really fast. Shoot, he was running 4.52 (seconds in the 40-yard dash) in high school and had 37-, 38-inch vertical. When we tested him and he had those numbers, I started calling everybody around that I knew and telling them, ‘I have a big, long corner here that you’re going to love.’”
Every NFL story has its preamble. In King’s case, it came at the nearly 1,200-student prep school in Oakland, Calif. But before King became a star cornerback at the University of Washington or the Packers’ first pick of the 2017 NFL Draft, the promising teenager was just a kid who loved football.
Back in those days, King was known more for being T.J. King’s little brother than a lengthy, shutdown cornerback. T.J. was a star receiver/safety for the Dragons and a team leader during Nickerson’s first year as head coach.
The elder King was electric on the football field, finishing as the program’s all-time leader in receptions and yards before going on to play at UC-Davis. Naturally, it created high – but not unrealistic – expectations for the younger King.
“It’s crazy going back to my high school and going back to my hometown, there’s a lot of little kids and my young sister friends kind of look at me like, ‘I’m the guy,’” said Kevin King last week. “They look at me in awe and want to take pictures, but for me, that was my older brother. That’s why I don’t mind signing stuff and taking pictures with kids because I know the impact my brother had on me.”
The knack for big plays also was nothing new to the younger King. During his early days in Pop Warner, King once had two interceptions in a single quarter.
While King played on Bishop O’Dowd’s JV team as a sophomore, his talent was evident from the start. Nickerson can still remember the first time one of his assistants, former NFL safety Donovin Darius, mentioned bringing King up to varsity.
“By training camp his sophomore year, he told me, ‘Hey Coach, we have a cornerback down here on JV, let’s bring him up,’” said Nickerson, who’s now the defensive coordinator and linebackers coach at the University of Illinois.
“I was like, ‘OK, let’s take a look at him,’ but Kevin decided he wanted to stay down on JV his sophomore year because he had all his buddies on the team. He wanted to stay with his class for that year, but we could see it.”
It was right about that time King experienced a growth spurt. King estimates he grew about five or six inches to 6-foot-2 range going into his junior year. As Nickerson tells it, the two were about eye level when he started coaching King. By King’s senior year, “he was kind of looking down” on his head coach.
When King made his varsity debut as a junior, he did it with authority. The young cornerback caught two interceptions in his first game at a showcase event in Sacramento. The opposing quarterback stayed away from King the rest of the game, but the cornerback still managed to record 11 tackles.
“He’s a lockdown corner,” Nickerson said. “Kev could play press coverage and the guy would never get off the line of scrimmage. The receivers would kind of give up, trying to get a release.”
King thrived in a Tampa-2 style defense – the same scheme in which Nickerson made a name for himself with the Buccaneers in the mid-’90s – but also was effective in a number of other roles.
Undoubtedly the team’s top player, King was constantly moving around during his senior year. He played receiver, Wildcat quarterback, free and strong safety, cornerback and even returned kickoffs.
No game better demonstrated his versatility – and conditioning – than Bishop O’Dowd’s playoff game against Acalanes his senior year. Facing fourth down and trailing by 6, the Dragons called four vertical routes out of a trips formation with 40 yards to the end zone and roughly two minutes left.
King took it from there.
“Kevin was the No. 2 receiver and he ran down the seam and we threw it up to him,” Nickerson recalled. “He jumped over three kids, caught the ball with kids draped all over him and stretched to get the ball in the end zone for a score.”
The game wasn’t over, though. There was still a minute left in the game and Bishop O’Dowd’s defense needed a stop. It forced Acalanes into a third-down situation and a decision to make after running the ball heavily throughout.
The Dons finally choose to pass the ball and King picked it off to end the game.
“He got a pick, caught like five or six passes for over a 100 yards and maybe even a couple scores,” Nickerson said. “I think he maybe even threw a pass in that game and obviously got an interception to seal the victory.”
Despite his high-school heroics, King initially wasn’t recruited heavily to Nickerson’s amazement. It wasn’t until King was named the defensive MVP at Nike’s regional Opening camp he started to attract schools.
Coincidentally, Nickerson and Darius were coaches at the event.
“(Darius) and Hardy were fighting over who was going to pick me.” King laughed. “Donovin had the first pick and he picked me. Hardy was mad.”
King’s career took off at Washington, starting three seasons for the Huskies. He finished with 165 tackles, 28 pass defections and six interceptions after playing safety, slot cornerback and working on the boundary opposite Sidney Jones as a senior.
Now, the journey has brought King to Green Bay. At 6-3, he’s the tallest cornerback General Manager Ted Thompson has drafted by more than an inch. Still agile for his size, the Packers are excited about his upside in Dom Capers’ defense.
King knows he has much to learn, but credits his time playing for Nickerson to his development. He feels he benefited from both the five-time Pro Bowler’s system and approach.
On the other side of the equation, Nickerson looks back fondly on his time coaching both King and his older brother. As his pupil readies for the pros, Nickerson sees nothing but potential and promise in King’s forecast.
“He’s the total package as a corner,” Nickerson said. “Everybody is looking for a big corner who can run. Usually, you have big corners who aren’t that fast or they may be fast, but not athletic.
“Kevin King is the total package – 6-foot-3, sub-4.5 40, 39-inch vertical. He has good hips, can run – he is the total package.”