Taking the lead: PSU's Kalen King guiding young defenders on his own rise to the top

Sep. 1—STATE COLLEGE — So few receivers growing up in Detroit had the speed to scoot past him on a go route, the quickness to beat him on an out or the temerity to slant in front of him knowing the hit they'd absorb. Kalen King grew up with a thought in his mind that now seems laughable even to him.

Could he possibly be beat, by anybody?

Unconvinced, he stepped up to the line of scrimmage for one of his first practice reps as the jewel of Penn State's 2021 recruiting class. Opposite him stood an unheralded walk-on receiver with no prospects of making a college start.

King chuckled to himself. Preventing this guy from getting the ball, he figured, would be as easy as shutting down the outmatched receivers he faced in his days in the Motor City.

Then, the ball got snapped.

"And, he kills me. Like, straight," King said of that walk-on, his eyes wide and eyebrows raised. "He breaks off his route, and I'm going totally the opposite way.

"That's when I knew. I'm in college now. Anyone can beat you."

The lesson changed a gifted freshman's outlook. It may also change things for a young and talented Penn State secondary this fall.

Two years after botching that play — and completing the laps around the practice facility cornerbacks coach Terry Smith made him run for his overconfidence — King didn't just become one of the top cornerbacks in college football, but one of the most respected leaders on a Nittany Lions defense that opens the season Saturday against West Virginia at Beaver Stadium.

It's a job he says he values as much as he does picking off passes and driving receivers into the turf.

"One of our young corners, he was mad earlier this week because he had a bad practice," King said. "I just pulled him to the side and just explained to him, this is college now. Everybody here is good. Everybody here can beat you. So don't get too down on yourself when you get beat, because that's the name of the game. You're not going to be perfect.

"I feel like I'm at this point in my college career where I know when someone needs help, because I was just in those shoes. I know when someone is not sure of something. Anytime I can see a little clue or we're in drills and I see somebody's not really familiar, I like to step in, give them a little pointer and just point them in the right direction."

None of that came naturally to him, at first.

Part of the allure of playing ball at a program like Cass Technical High School in Detroit is, there are always good players around. That program counts alumni who went on to play in the NFL in the dozens. Many were like King, corners who went on to star in the Big Ten.

They say corners play "on an island," but it does tend to become one from a team perspective. Playing there often is a one-on-one proposition, away from other teammates and the responsibilities of being a go-to voice for younger players. Other teammates had the gravitas to take that role. King always felt most comfortable on the island anyway, making his plays and doing it consistently.

After the Rose Bowl win over Utah in January, the Nittany Lions found confidence they could contend for a Big Ten championship this fall. It also lost a big part of what made it an 11-2 team: Veteran leadership from guys like quarterback Sean Clifford, defensive tackle PJ Mustipher, special teams ace Jonathan Sutherland and a top mentor of King's, safety Ji'Ayir Brown.

Franklin suddenly had a roster with plenty of talent, short on practiced leadership skills. So, he urged Penn State's top young players to assume those roles.

With sophomore Cam Miller earning more on-field opportunities this fall, and true freshmen Zion Tracy and Elliot Washington starring during their first camps in August, it made sense they gravitated toward the teammate who earned preseason All-American honors after intercepting three passes and breaking up 18 more last season. Some believe he is destined to be the first Nittany Lions defensive back selected in the first round of the draft.

"I feel like it's only right for me to do so," King said. "A lot of people coming in, they're looking at me for advice, and they're looking at me for things to do. So I feel like I have to be more of a leader now."

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