The state of Georgia is known as a hot bed for high school football talent, sending hundreds of players to Division I schools every year.
That didn't mean much to Darqueze Dennard as he entered his senior year at Twiggs County High School.
"Going into my senior year, I just had one offer from Middle Tennessee State, and I thought I was going to be playing somewhere like that," the 5-foot-11, 197-pound cornerback said. "I never thought I would be at this big stage where I am in the Big Ten.
"I am blessed and never could have dreamed that I would be here right now."
"Here" was in a ballroom at the Chicago Hilton Hotel on Thursday, which Dennard said had more people in it than he graduated with.
But it was not a simple – or quick – path for the projected early round NFL draft pick as the recruiting process took time to unfold.
"It was kind of depressing at some times, but my family kept me up," he said. "They told me to keep working hard. You will get to your goals."
Fortunately for Dennard and Michigan State, that hard work paid off.
"I think we are always looking for the diamond in the rough," head coach Mark Dantonio said. "We are always chasing that and always looking for that guy that isn't being that heavily recruited, but he is going to come here and be a star.
"We have had great examples of that happening here, Le'Veon Bell and now Darqueze."
Unearthing a gem
The route was far from ordinary for Michigan State finding Dennard. In fact, MSU coach Dave Warner, who recruits in the state of Georgia, stumbled across Dennard while watching current MSU receiver Keith Mumphery, who played at Dooly County High School.
Warner brought Dantonio film of the athletic high schooler and the head coach liked what he saw.
"I was surprised (no one else was pursuing Dennard)," Dantonio said. "The film was a little choppy, and you had to look through it and you had to go to the next level of what you're evaluating, but we thought he could be a player."
The Spartans quickly contacted Dennard.
"It was a great feeling because, at the time, I didn't have any (big) scholarship offers," Dennard said. "Coming from a Big Ten school, which down South we don't always hear from, and a major program, it was exciting.
"Me and my family were very happy, and I still am excited today."
Dennard came to East Lansing for an official visit Jan. 15, 2010, and despite it being his first encounter with snow, left with a great impression.
"It was love at first sight," Dennard said. "When I first got up to MSU, they opened up with open arms. All the players were like my brothers. They treated me well, and the coaches were all father figures and good role models. … I just thought it would be wonderful to play here."
He left without an offer, but it came a few days later. Shortly thereafter, Dennard was committed to Michigan State.
"It was an easy decision because of the coaching staff and the players that we had," Dennard said. "Coach Dantonio, he was upfront with me and kept it real, and the same with Coach Barnett."
Dantonio said after Dennard signed with the Spartans, Dennard was one of the fastest high schoolers in the 100-meter dash in Georgia and drew the attention of a few other big-name programs.
"As soon as we got on him, South Carolina jumped on him and Illinois jumped on him," Dantonio said. "We had to beat South Carolina on him at the end. … He stayed true to his word and to his commitment."
"When I first got (to East Lansing), I wanted to play, and I knew I had the talent to play with anyone if I just work hard," Dennard said.
His time came quickly, as he stepped in and started while Chris L. Rucker served a two-game suspension.
"When I got my opportunity, it was wonderful," Dennard said. "I was so anxious the first game, I started I kept calling my mom and my grandparents the whole week telling them, ‘I'm ready to go, I'm ready to go.'"
Dantonio attributed Dennard's early opportunity to his attitude and maturity.
"He played a true freshman. Why did he play? Mature. He was mature," Dantonio said. "Rucker was out and here comes Darqueze Dennard. There weren't a lot of expectations. Everyone really worried about him, but he had a great game that day."
Dennard had a season-high five tackles and a lead-preserving forced fumble and recovery.
And he never looked back.
An opportunity to give
Dennard entered 2011 as a full-time starter.
A couple of years and six interceptions later – including two against his home-state Georgia Bulldogs in the Outback Bowl – Dennard found himself with the option to leave early for the NFL, which three other Spartans did after the 2012 campaign.
Dennard didn't take long to make his decision.
"I went home and talked to my parents on break in December, and I told them that I wanted to stay and get my degree, and they all supported that," he said.
He also knew why he was coming back.
"A lot brought me back," he said. "The team, of course, everyone knows we have a great team and we were a few plays away from being 11-1. The coaching staff (is) great."
Dantonio said the decision reflected highly on Dennard's character.
"It says a lot about him," Dantonio said. "I am always talking to our players about trying to become givers, not takers. When you sacrifice, you become a giver. It's just another example of giving.
"In his own way, this was Darqueze's opportunity to give. Not just to the coaches, but to his teammates. I think that's where it all lies. It's not just to me or to our coaches or Coach (Harlon) Barnett; it's to him with his education and with his family to his education."
One more year
With one more season left to make his mark in East Lansing, Dennard is enjoying the fellowship with his teammates – in particular, the seniors.
"We all hang out together, and we all workout together," Dennard said. "We all bond as a team, and we take it on ourselves to have a great year this year. We are going to put it on our back and lead the team, and it is going to be a great year for us."
But it isn't all fun and games. Dennard wants to go out on top.
"My goals (this year) are to be a winner," he said. "I want to leave a legacy at Michigan State – bring back the first Big Ten championship game trophy to Michigan State."
On the personal side, Dennard is on the preseason watch lists for the Bednarik (defensive player of the year), Jim Thorpe (nation's top defensive back) and Nagurski (nation's best defender) awards.
"I talk to all of them, and they just told me to keep working hard and don't think too far ahead," Dennard said. "They say I have the talent to play at that level and keep playing hard and I'll be there."
For now, though, Dennard remains thankful.
"I could never have imagined this," Dennard said. "A lot of people don't get this opportunity. I just think I'm blessed and I give all the thanks to God.
"It's just a wonderful feeling that I'm predicted to go in the first round, but I'm not looking into it too much now. I'm focused on the season and everything else will happen."