HOUSTON — The silver No. 4 pendant dangling from D'Eriq King's necklace tells a story.
For starters, he never wanted that jersey number when he arrived at Houston as a true freshman three years ago. He wanted No. 2. But when the team's starting running back at the time, Duke Catalon, wanted to don No. 2 at the last minute, King was forced to give it up. The team gave him No. 4 instead.
Looking back now, inside Houston's football complex one week before fall camp will begin, King can smile about it. And everything else. His jersey number. Injuries. Position changes. Coaches who refused to offer him a scholarship to play quarterback because of his size. Even his own high school coaches who echoed their concerns.
"My dad always told me that when you are 6'3" or 6'4", you've got to prove that you can't play quarterback," King says. "At 5'10" or 5'11", you have to prove you can play quarterback."
Whether King is actually 5'11", the height listed on his official bio, feels almost insignificant in the moment. Not just because Baker Mayfield (6'1" but listed by Oklahoma at 6'2" when he was there) and Kyler Murray (5'10") won Heismans before being drafted No. 1 overall. Or because of the success quarterbacks like Drew Brees (6'0") or Russell Wilson (5'11") have had in the NFL. But also because of all those touchdowns that have already proved everyone who doubted him wrong.
King scored 50 touchdowns in 2018—36 passing and 14 rushing—many of them the result of his electric improvisation, moments made for the highlight reels.
Only two quarterbacks in the country, Murray and Ohio State's Dwayne Haskins, scored more. And they both needed a full 14-game season to score 54 times. King posted his number in only 10-and-a-half games.
Had he not torn his meniscus in his right knee in mid-November, a run at Colt Brennan's FBS record of 63 touchdowns was very possible. Even as is, it ranks 22nd all-time.
"I'm not trying to be cocky, but I think I would have got pretty close to the record," King says. "In the back of my mind, I always knew what I was capable of. Proving it to everyone else feels good."
Caught between what almost never was and what might have been, King is the subject of endless questions. What if he played at Oklahoma or Ohio State rather than Houston? What if he was just three inches taller? And what if his right foot hadn't gotten awkwardly caught in the turf?
The hypotheticals no longer concern him. Not after a lifetime of doubt. Perhaps there is a more appropriate question as he enters his final collegiate season, hoping to provide an encore.
What if the best is still to come?
He was 125 pounds when he arrived at Manvel High School, a Texas powerhouse 23 miles from where he plays today. The coaches didn't think much of him at the time of his arrival, burying him at eighth-string on the depth chart before his sophomore year.
As a freshman, King played at Westbury Christian High School, coached by his father, Eric, who decided that Manvel would be a better place for his son's gifts to thrive. D'Eriq protested the idea, but he and his older brother, KeShon, changed schools regardless.
He was offered few opportunities to showcase much of anything in practices at first. But then, as the season approached, King got a look.
The call was 13 Zone, a zone-read play to the left side of the field. King tucked the ball and did what he does: Scored. Easily. And like that, the coaching staff was interested.
Over the days that followed, he was given more chances and climbed the depth chart. Fifth string. Third string. By the first game, he rotated series with another quarterback. In a matter of weeks, he was cemented as the starter.
King eclipsed 10,000 yards passing and 3,000 rushing in his four high school seasons. He threw for 140 touchdowns and only 21 interceptions. He also scored 48 touchdowns on the ground. His senior year, he broke the career Texas 6A passing touchdown record, which was previously set by Murray, widely considered to be one of the greatest high school football players ever.
Despite King's production, only seven schools wanted him as a quarterback. Dozens more wanted him to play wide receiver or cornerback—positions he had never tried.
"The whole country wanted him as an athlete," Eric King says on his son's recruitment. "But many of them didn't see him as a QB because of his size. I had one defensive coordinator call me and tell me they wanted him on defense. I told that coach that he wasn't a f--king cornerback. He's a quarterback."
King initially committed to TCU but then flipped to Houston after Ed Oliver, the former 5-star recruit from the area, pledged his commitment to the Cougars.
He loved the idea of playing for his city. He also felt this was his best opportunity to stay at quarterback.
"Most coaches I talked to told me about my height," D'Eriq says. "Even coaches on my high school team were telling me I won't be able to do it because of my size. I'd kind of just brush it off, and it'd add fuel to the fire."
His dream of staying at quarterback lasted six months.
Injuries hit the receiving corps hard during his first fall camp, and senior Greg Ward Jr. was returning as the starter at quarterback after leading the team to a 13-1 record the previous year. So Tom Herman, Houston's former head coach and currently the coach at Texas, asked D'Eriq and his father if D'Eriq could switch to wide receiver. Although the move was billed as temporary, it forced Eric and his son to mull their options.
"I had a contact with Oregon at the time, and I told him we could go wherever he wanted to go," Eric King says. "He could redshirt or transfer. But he wanted to stay. He wanted to play for his city."
Having never played wide receiver, King practiced for less than a month before his debut. It came against Oklahoma in his first game as a true freshman. The advice he got from Herman when the coach, to his surprise, inserted him into the game was clear. Just don't fumble.
Houston beat the Sooners, and King played a role in the upset. He finished with three catches for 28 yards, assuming his new position with ease. Three weeks later, King caught a touchdown, threw a touchdown on a trick play and returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown against Texas State.
"I took it pretty serious," King says. "I just wanted to be good at it in case I had to switch positions."
He finished his freshman campaign with a respectable 29 catches for 228 yards. But after the season, he moved back to quarterback as promised. And then just as he was gaining momentum leading into the year, he tore his right meniscus for the first time. After he recovered following surgery, King moved back to wideout with the quarterback situation temporarily solved. He caught at least four balls in each of his five games there, reacclimating himself to the role once again.
Then the breakthrough came. Houston was off to a mediocre 4-3 start, and quarterbacks Kyle Allen and Kyle Postma had combined for nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions. The team that had averaged 40.4 points per game in 2015 and 35.8 in 2016 was down to 27.3. So King, who had taken no reps in the days and weeks leading up to Houston's game against 17th-ranked South Florida, was abruptly inserted as quarterback.
He didn't have a huge passing workload—completing 12 of 20 passes for 137 yards—but there were glimpses of what he could do, like the long, game-tying touchdown pass early in the third quarter. Then there was the final drive. Down three with a little over a minute remaining, King converted on a 4th-and-24—an unlikely throw through traffic that somehow found Courtney Lark—and then, with 11 seconds remaining, scored on a 20-yard scramble. Houston came from behind to win 28-24, giving South Florida its first loss of the year.
"Every position he's ever played he earned," Eric King says. "Nobody has given him anything. He's had to go take it. I'm not surprised by any of it. But I'm proud at how he's gone out there and earned it."
Braylon Jones can vividly recall the greatest football play he's ever seen, largely because his mistake allowed it to transpire.
Facing South Florida again, a year after seizing the starting quarterback job, King found himself once again creating in the backfield last fall. After Jones missed a block on a defensive end charging up the field, King took off.
He slipped through the defender's arm, pushing forward. He broke a tackle. Then another. Then, as the secondary seemed to close in, he weaved into open space. With one man left to beat, he uncorked a violent spin move into the open field. He then galloped the remaining 20 yards into the end zone.
"It felt like I was watching it in slow motion," Jones says. "It was unbelievable. You only see stuff like that in video games."
King finished the game with 419 passing yards, 132 rushing yards and seven touchdowns, and Houston upset No. 21 USF 57-36.
While his performance surprised many, it didn't shock Houston safety Deontay Anderson.
"I've seen that kind of play he made against South Florida so many times," says Anderson, who played with King in high school and transferred from Ole Miss to Houston at least in part to reunite with him. "I mean, that's nothing. I've seen him do some incredible things over the years."
For the season, King ended up accounting for 2,982 passing yards and 674 rushing yards, along with the 50 touchdowns. He eclipsed 100 rushing yards and 400 passing yards three times apiece. He scored at least five touchdowns in five of the 10 full games he started. And all that came with only six interceptions on 345 passing attempts, which again doesn't surprise Anderson. For years, he's tried to lure King into throwing interceptions. And for years, he's mostly failed. "It can be frustrating playing safety against this guy," Anderson says. "He doesn't throw any picks."
"If he stays healthy," Anderson adds, "I think he could win the Heisman."
King might have been on his way to consideration for the award last season if it hadn't been for the torn meniscus, which he suffered on a non-contact injury against Tulane. It was an unassuming play, during which his foot seemed to latch onto the turf and turn his knee.
He recognized the pain immediately, and having torn the same meniscus the season prior, he knew what it meant. There would be no awards or records. His year was over.
Even before he took the job of head coach at Houston in January, Dana Holgorsen couldn't help but notice what the school's undersized quarterback was up to. The staggering numbers and highlights were too much to ignore for a coach who had spent much of his professional life in Texas.
"He's got the abilities," Holgorsen says. "He's incredibly electric. He's done it all, and he can do it all."
After spending eight years at West Virginia, Holgorsen returned to the state of Texas in search of a professional reset. Knowing how important King would be to that and aware they'd only have one year together—"I really wish I had two," Holgorsen says—he met him before anyone else, providing King with a flurry of highlights of Murray's last season at Oklahoma.
The two have comparable body types. And Holgorsen hopes King can emulate the way Murray was able to be active and still avoid contact.
"One of the first things he said to me was that sometimes he feels like he's got to run somebody over to get his teammates fired up," Holgorsen says. "I told him he needs to get rid of that right now. I don't want to take that part of his game away from him. I just want to limit the amount of hits that he takes."
Playing for then-offensive coordinator Kendal Briles last season, King was taught to move fast and allowed the opportunity to create on the fly. This year's offense will be different. The tempo will be slower. The play-calling will be tweaked.
The Cougars will still need King to be himself, but the hope is it will look slightly different and provide him with the best opportunity to showcase his talent for a full season.
"I've tried to get him to understand that I don't want him to have 50 touchdowns this year," Holgorsen says. "We need him to score and do what he has to do to win the game. But if we've already won, then I'm not interested in him getting a couple of rushing touchdowns."
His knee his healthy now, and it has been for some time.
For the first time since he arrived at Houston, King has been allowed to prepare and focus on only one position without distraction.
His senior season will begin in Norman against Oklahoma on Sunday. Given how his college career began, it seems like a fitting place for the beginning of the end. Only this time, he won't be playing wide receiver and just trying not to fumble. He will be asked to engineer what would be a sizable upset against a team planning to vie for the College Football Playoff.
He will go head-to-head with Jalen Hurts, a fellow Texas high school QB trying to redefine himself as a senior. In 2015, King led Manvel to a 71-21 victory over Hurts and Channelview High School, ending Hurts' high school career. The two have stayed in contact ever since.
The idea of eclipsing his 50-touchdown season has yet to cross his mind. "I had a pretty good year last year," he says. "But if I could replace all those touchdowns with wins, I would."
Houston was 8-3 in games King started last season. It finished with two straight losses without him and comes into the 2019 season unranked.
If he can pull off that upset over Oklahoma and keep the Cougars rolling from there, he could be on his way to more Heisman buzz, whether he's setting touchdown records or not.
Along the way, he will watch and root for Murray as he attempts his own conquest of the NFL. B/R draft expert Matt Miller has reservations about King's potential at the next level because of his size but adds, "Kyler taught us to never say never." If Murray has a strong rookie season for the Arizona Cardinals, it could help pave the way for a quarterback of a similar size.
But King doesn't expect Murray's performance to sway his future one way or another as he looks to play quarterback this year and beyond.
That part will have to be earned, which is exactly how he wants it.
Adam Kramer covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KegsnEggs.