As a late bloomer in football, Akeem King spent much of this past season at Nipomo High only beginning to find out how good he could be. Soon enough, plenty others might witness his ongoing progress.
Little over a week ago, King verbally committed to play football on a full-ride scholarship at San Jose State, making him this year’s first San Luis Obispo County product to commit to a Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A) program. He also became the first Nipomo player to commit to an FBS school, and will sign his National Letter of Intent on National Signing Day, Wednesday at Nipomo High.
“I never thought I’d be playing Division I football,” King said. “It’s a big surprise and a very good opportunity that not a lot of people get. I’m going to take full advantage of it and go as far as I can.”
Combination of size, speed separate King from the pack
Last March, Bryan Krill, the sprints coach for the Nipomo track and field team, was simply looking for someone fast. Krill, a former USC track team captain who qualified in the 200 meters for the U.S. Olympic Trials in 1996, had just shuffled the Titans’ lineup and needed a body to fill out the squad’s 100 practice in preparation for an upcoming dual meet against Paso Robles.
Russ Edwards, the Titans’ head coach, nominated King, then a junior known almost exclusivelyfor his exploits in jumping events, for the spot duty. Edwards, also the head football coach, had a decent amount of familiarity with the 6-foot-3, 190-pound King’s promising athleticism, as he had come out for football earlier that year, going on to make five tackles as a defensive back.
“I said, ‘Akeem’s kind of fast,’ ” Edwards recalled of his shrugging response to Krill. “He had never really run the 100.”
Just one day after that first trial run, King won the event against the Bearcats.
“As he ran in the race, we kind of went, ‘Wow, he is fast,’ ” Edwards said. “No one really knew he was that fast. As the track season went along, he just kept winning and winning, and his confidence was building as the year went along.”
King whittled away at a time that started out in the mid 11-second range, and by early April, in just his fifth chance, he set a school record by clocking a 10.74.
“Last year coach threw me in the 100 for the first time,” said King, who has been electronically timed in the 40-yard dash at 4.49 seconds. “I’d never realized my speed.”
That newfound confidence, coupled with his virtually elite combination of size and speed, transferred over to the gridiron as a senior, as he had 30 tackles and two interceptions. He also provided a deep threat at receiver, catching seven passes for 203 yards and four touchdowns.
“With the amount of improvement he had in a one-year span, if he can do that again, he could be a big-time Division I player,” Edwards said. “And I think that’s what San Jose State knows. He’s got a huge ceiling.”
Adjustment to physicality took time
King — who started out at Nipomo primarily as a basketball player — eventually got talked into football before his junior year, thanks in large part to Edwards.
“I’m always looking on campus for any talent — any guys who are athletic,” Edwards said. “I’m always listening to the guys on the team and asking them, ‘Who’s in your class? Who should be playing football?’
“Two years ago, I walked by him and made a passing comment: ‘Hey, you should think about football,’ and we were able to get him out for spring ball.”
The adjustment took time.
“It was new,” King said. “I wasn’t used to being so physical and stuff, but after a couple of months, I got used to it and fell in love with it.”
While it may have taken King a couple more years than most to find his niche, his competitive spirit has remain unchanged, Edwards said.
“In track, everything is very individual,” said Edwards, who wants to lower King’s 100 time to about 10.5 this track season. “It really teaches you how to compete.”
In the Titans’ summer passing competitions prior to this past season, Edwards recalled, King steadily became more eager to cover the other team’s No. 1 receiver.
“As he blossomed and worked hard, he really began to accept and want the pressure of guarding teams’ top guys,” Edwards said.
Statistics belie true value, potential
Following King’s senior campaign, he was selected to the all-Los Padres League second team as a receiver and The Tribune’s all-county second team as an all-purpose player.
A handful of other Nipomo players will also join King in the college ranks.
While King’s individual catches total might not have been among the best in the area, he played a vital role in stretching opposing defenses, helping to free up receiver Kevin Britt and provide space for running back Eric Penningroth.
The Titans went 8-4, advancing to the quarterfinals of the CIF-Southern Section Northwest Division playoffs.
Britt, a 6-1 all-divisional selection, has been offered a scholarship by Cal Poly. A fellow track star who also possesses 4.5-second speed in the 40, Britt has also received interest from a number of other Division I programs in the West, including Fresno State. The versatile Penningroth, meanwhile, who amassed a county-best 2,008 yards from scrimmage, has garnered looks from San Diego and Cornell, among others.
Duane Hanna, an all-divisional linebacker and the LPL Defensive Back of the Year, has committed to Sacramento State, while quarterback Josh Correia will play at Monterey Peninsula College.
MacIntyre era under way at San Jose State
The Spartans first became interested in King during this past summer at a camp. In December, they hired Mike MacIntyre as head coach to replace the legendary Dick Tomey, who retired in November. MacIntyre, 44, spent the past two years as Duke’s defensive coordinator, winning the American Football Coaches Association FBS Assistant Coach of the Year award a season ago.
“He cares about us all being one unit and a family,” King said. “We talk about what goes on in our lives.”
King, along with Britt, recently joined Edwards’ first-period class, where they lift weights alongside mostly juniors looking to get a head start on football for next year. While King’s development in route running and ball skills will be instrumental in his playing time, he may be able to see the field as a freshman, as he doesn’t want to be a late bloomer again.
“(The coaching staff) said I might not redshirt, that I might go out there and play my first year,” King said. “It’s up to me.”