By almost any measure, Greg Mabin has compiled an impressive college football resume. He has started 22 consecutive games for Iowa at cornerback, played a significant role in the Hawkeyes' rise to Big Ten West power and become a widely respected leader on defense.
You'd think all those successes would be enough to finally put Mabin in the spotlight before his senior season. Instead, when folks around Iowa City see Mabin, they are less inclined to inquire about his triumphs as a three-year starter than they are to probe for stories about his teammate.
"That's pretty much the first question that everybody asks me," Mabin said. "What's it like playing opposite Desmond King, playing with the Jim Thorpe Award winner?"
It would be understandable if Mabin tired of the fuss about King, whose performance has overshadowed Mabin's own accomplishments. King tied the school record last season with eight interceptions and was named the best defensive back in the sport. No Thorpe Award winner with remaining eligibility had ever come back to school until King. That meant the entire offseason was spent dissecting how King's return would impact the team's fortunes.
It also meant virtually nobody was talking about Mabin, whose eight pass breakups ranked second on the team behind King, and who has been responsible for 107 tackles the past two seasons with 26 total starts.
But resentment or jealousy is not in Mabin's nature. So he insists that if anybody wants to ask about King, they can ask away.
"My answer every time they ask me a question like that is the same," Mabin said. "I see it as a blessing and a privilege to be able to play alongside a national award winner. Just seeing the type of work ethic that it takes to be that type of talent, I try to emulate that in myself. Him playing opposite me pushes me even harder because I aspire to win the accolades and do whatever I can to help my team just like he does.
"I've never really been one to enjoy being in the spotlight or anything. I'm just happy for his success. He's definitely earned it."
Iowa opens the 2016 season Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET against Miami (Ohio) at Kinnick Stadium. The Hawkeyes are the Big Ten West favorite for the sheer volume of talent returning off last year's 12-2 team that reached the league championship game and the Rose Bowl. One of Iowa's strengths is a secondary that brings back three starters: King, Mabin and strong safety Miles Taylor, who have combined to play in 94 games with 79 starts. Free safety Brandon Snyder is set to replace departed senior Jordan Lomax.
And while King is the big name in the group, it's quite possible Mabin will be as important, if not more, this season. Quarterbacks aren't likely to actively target King given the havoc he wreaked last season when he earned unanimous consensus All-American honors. It would seem more opportunities are on the way for Mabin, whose response could go a long way toward determining Iowa's fate.
"That's what everyone's been telling me this year," Mabin said. "I think I kind of saw a little bit of that last year. But I feel like this year coming up, it'll definitely happen more times than not. Teams will look my way. That's me testing my abilities and being able to step up to the challenge that's at hand."
That Mabin has put himself in this position of importance speaks to his athleticism, skill and intelligence. He arrived on campus as a wide receiver from Calvary Christian Academy in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and spent his redshirt season in 2012 trying to determine how he fit in. The following spring, he approached Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz to ask about switching jersey numbers. Ferentz responded with an offer of his own: How about switching positions?
"When we recruited Greg, we thought he was a good all-around athlete," Ferentz said. "We thought he really would have a chance to be a good Big Ten corner, and those are hard to come by. So we encouraged him to try that, and it's really worked out well for him."
Mabin said he welcomed the move to cornerback because Ferentz believed it would help him see the field sooner. But he did not play at all in 2013 and questioned whether he had made the right decision. He worked closely with defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach Phil Parker. And by 2014, he beat out Sean Draper and Maurice Fleming for the starting cornerback spot opposite King. He hasn't relinquished the spot since.
"I needed a lot of work," Mabin said. "Growing up, I've always been able to play different positions. But on defense, playing cornerback, you're on an island. You just have to have that discipline to trust your technique and trust your form to be able to go out there and perform."
Mabin missed spring practice while recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, which he said was the accumulative effect of repeated hits since high school. He declared himself as healthy as he has been in years now and noted the time off to study helped him better understand his job responsibilities in coverages, checks and shifts. In other words, the best cornerback duo in the league should be better than ever.
For Mabin, that means one thing in 2016: Cue the spotlight.
"We haven't been in this situation very often, but we have an unusual circumstance where we have two corners that are both really experienced," Ferentz said. "We think they're both talented players and they're excellent team guys and team leaders on top of it. So we're just very happy that he's on our team."