Chargers' Desmond King is feisty, 'instinctive football player'

Desmond King returns an interception 42 yards for a touchdown against the Seahawks. Abbie Parr/Getty Images

COSTA MESA, Calif. -- To say that Desmond King is a little feisty could be an understatement.

King basically wants to kick the guy's butt across from him on every single play.

"That's how I am," King said. "I'm going to stand on my own two feet and play as hard as I can all four quarters."

King's teammate Melvin Gordon was more succinct: "He's not the one to like to get tried."

That unapologetic bravado has served King well in plying his trade at one of the most difficult positions to play in the NFL: slot defender. Now in his second season, the Iowa product has developed into one of the most consistent and productive players for the Los Angeles Chargers, and is one of the reasons for the defense's resurgence during a six-game winning streak.

King leads the Chargers with three interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 9. He also has 30 combined tackles and seven pass breakups through nine games.

According to ESPN Stats & Information research, King has played 431 of the Chargers' 572 defensive snaps (75 percent) in 2018, with 331 those coming in the slot.

"It's basically all of the hard work he put in is now showing throughout the entire league," safety Adrian Phillips said. "He was doing it all of last year, he just really didn't get the opportunities in the game. But he's definitely taken it to another level. He's a baller, and that's what he does."

When Chargers coach Anthony Lynn looked at King's college tape, he saw a guy who has the natural ability to produce.

"He's a playmaker," Lynn said. "He's an instinctive football player and that's why we drafted him. He's been doing this his whole life."

Lynn's right. Surprisingly still around for the Chargers to scoop up in the fifth round of the 2017 draft, King has been a top-notch player at every level, but for one reason or another has gone under the radar.

A Detroit native, King set a Michigan record with 29 interceptions at East English Village Preparatory Academy and ran for 2,360 yards and 33 touchdowns his senior year of high school.

King also won a state wrestling championship at 150 pounds his junior year in high school. He said his favorite wrestling move was a double-leg takedown, followed by a cradle hold once he got his opponent to the mat.

The playmaking continued at Iowa, where King finished with 14 career interceptions, including three pick-sixes. He won the Jim Thorpe Award, given to the nation's top defensive back, his junior season.

Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said because of King's increased knowledge of and comfort in the defense, there have been a couple instances this season where he's made an impact on a play that was not his responsibility, anticipating a route concept and making something happen for the Bolts.

King's interception and 42-yard return for a touchdown of a Russell Wilson pass Nov. 4 was an example of that: The Chargers appeared to be in man-to-man, but actually disguised their coverage and fell into a three-deep zone after the snap, with King jumping out to the flat to intercept the throw.

Bradley said because King has become so versed in the defense and understands it well, the Chargers are putting even more on his plate, including playing more man coverage. Bradley said King is playing more consistently snap to snap in his second season.

"He's always been a really physical-type player -- attack mode -- a guy that can tackle in space with some of our principles that we use in our zone coverages," Bradley said. "The evolution where it's more consistent and having more awareness I think might be the biggest statement for him."

But don't call him just a slot corner. King believes if given the opportunity he could be just as effective covering on the perimeter.

"I feel like playing inside is harder than playing outside, honestly, because it's a two-way go on you," King said. "A lot of people say you have to have the size or speed to play on the outside as a corner, but anybody can play outside more."

King also has filled in nicely as a returner. He's averaging 11.5 yards per punt return this season, No. 6 in the NFL, and has performed ably as a kick returner as well.

"When we watched him at the University of Iowa, he was very good at returning kicks and punts," Chargers special teams coordinator George Stewart said. "He was a better punt returner than kicker returner. But Dez has taken full advantage of his opportunities, and hopefully he continues to do that as we go through the season."