Dennison Repays The Faith

Cort Dennison sees a lot of himself in fellow Washington linebacker Garret Gilliland. He likes how Garret is football- smart, and he loves his competitiveness. Most of all, Cort loves the fact that Gilliland isn't afraid to get up in a guy's grill and smack them in the face.

"Coach (Tyrone) Willingham said that he expects me to come in and work my tail off and he expects me to see me on the field next year," Dennison told on January 28, 2007. That day happened to be the same day he verbally committed to the University of Washington. "So I'm going to go in there, hit ‘em in the mouth and see what happens."

More than that, Dennison set himself on a mission to prove Washington right, while at the same time proving his doubters wrong. To those coaches at the University of Utah who weren't interested in taking a chance on the 2007 Utah Athlete of the Year, Dennison had a message: You made a mistake.

This was more than a case of a local player getting snubbed by the local school. Dennison grew up a fan of Utah football; his parents were part of a Ute tailgating group, and he had been going to games since he was four or five.

When Dennison enrolled at Judge Memorial Catholic High School, he was within strolling distance of the University of Utah campus. Walk one block north and three blocks east from the Judge Memorial campus, and you'd find yourself in the main parking lot next to Rice-Eccles Stadium.

Dennison's prep football career was played in Utah's considerable shadow, which in turn was shrouded by the Wasatch Range. He had followed the Utes through the lean times, through Ron McBride's tenure, during seasons when they were part of the WAC and Mountain West Conferences. He reveled in Urban Meyer's two seasons in Salt Lake City. In 2004, his first year at Judge Memorial, Utah became the first ‘BCS Buster'. Dennison was at Rice-Eccles when they beat Texas A&M, Air Force, North Carolina, UNLV, Colorado State, and BYU. He idolized their quarterback, Alex Smith. He admired Smith's ability to parlay his hard work into becoming a top competitor and winner.

Early on, Cort wanted badly to prove he belonged on the field at Rice-Eccles, or any Division-1 football field for that matter. His freshman year at Judge Memorial was unspectacular. Bulldogs Head Coach James Cordova moved Dennison to strong safety as a sophomore, where he started every game for the junior varsity. About half-way through the 2005 season, he told Cordova he wanted to move to linebacker, which coincided with a revelation - the weight room. Even though he was still a star on the basketball team, Dennison came to realize that football was his true first love.

At that point Dennison was about 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds. By the time the Bulldogs reconvened in August of 2006 for their fall camp, Cort had bulked up to 198 pounds and was still growing. He would bug Cordova all hours of the day, on weekends and during breaks, to see if the weight room was open. Around the same time, Dennison became a regular at the Cordova house on Saturday mornings. This was the time where James would cut up game tape from the night before. Cort would ask questions. Lots of questions. It was hard for Cordova not to latch on to the charismatic Dennison. Cort had taken a shine to James' son Andreas. He had become part of Cordova's family.

On the field, Dennison was starting to emerge as a real force, especially on defense. His breakthrough came during week three, when Cordova gave Cort a chance to attack the backfield.

"When he made that hit, the light just went on," Cordova would say. "This kid can blitz."

During Dennison's senior season, Cordova designed a pet defense; he would shade Cort over to the strong side and have him blitz basically every play. At the end of his Judge Memorial career, Dennison amassed 41.5 sacks. On offense, he caught over 1000 yards' worth of passes, but it was his work on the other side of the ball that had colleges interested.

Dennison quickly became the biggest Division-1 prospect Cordova had ever had at Judge Memorial since taking over from his father Gil in 2003. Army Head Coach Bobby Ross told Cordova Dennison was at the top of their recruiting board. Washington State's Robb Akey didn't need a linebacker for their class, but was intrigued by Dennison as possibly a defensive end. They eventually decided to pass, because they didn't think he was big enough.

By then, Dennison had grown to 6-foot-2 and 218 pounds. He ran a legitimate 4.6 40. He was the Salt Lake Tribune's State Athlete of the Year. He was an All-State performer in both football and basketball. He led the Bulldogs to their first State Championship game in 14 years.

With the Utah campus a drive and a pitching wedge away from Judge Memorial, they surely would show an interest in such a decorated prep resume, especially when it came attached to an admitted fan of their program.

"No one was really interested," said Cordova. "Utah said we don't see him as a Division-1 football player."

Those words killed Cort. At best, it was looking like he would have to swallow a walk-on opportunity at Utah. Cordova tried his best to get the Utes to accept Cort as a preferred walk-on, but to no avail. He wasn't looking for a hand-out; just a hand. He knew he was good enough to play Division-1 football. Now all he needed was an opportunity.

The Huskies gave Cort Dennison that chance.

Three weeks before Signing Day, Cordova got a call at school. It was Washington Defensive Coordinator Kent Baer. From nearby Logan, Baer had come down to Judge a couple years before, and had offered Russell Condas - who eventually went to the University of San Diego - a preferred walk-on opportunity. UW had been watching Dennison's recruitment from afar, not 100 percent sure what they wanted to do with him. Was he worth one of their remaining scholarships?

As it turned out, the Washington coaching staff was having an internal debate. At the heart of the discussion were two linebackers; Dennison and Deonte Green from Mission Bay High School in San Diego. In the end, the Huskies decided to go on Dennison, if he was available.

"We had a kid decommit," Baer told Cordova. "Do you have the Dennison kid, or is he committed? If he's committed, I don't want to talk to him, because I don't do that."

"He hasn't committed to anybody yet."

"How quickly can we get him up on a visit?"

"Let me go grab him out of class."

Cordova grabbed Dennison, took him back to his office, and the two of them called Baer back. At that time, Baer asked Cort when he could be available to take an official visit to Washington.

"Cort's whole body changed," Cordova recalled.

The Huskies flew him out to Seattle that weekend, and within two weeks he was committed. During the visit, Dennison called Cordova when he was at his Dad's house. The Huskies had offered him a full- ride scholarship. "He was screaming, I was screaming," James said.

Gil had a message for Cort. "Tell him I told you so, kid," were his words.

"Genuinely, who wouldn't be interested in going to Washington?" Cordova queried, looking back on it all. "I know they were going through a rough patch, but we all grew up with a whole different Washington."

Rough patch undersold Washington's situation by quite a bit, as the Huskies nine games his first year. He redshirted that year, and wasn't thrilled about it - but he kept his head down, mouth shut and worked his butt off, eventually winning the Mark Drennan Defensive Scout of the Year. It got even worse in 2008, as UW lost all 12 of their games.

Through it all, Cort never forgot where he came from. He called Cordova up every Friday night to find out how the Bulldogs did. He still calls. He checks up on Andreas and the rest of the Cordovas. Andreas, who is now 13, wears a 31 jersey.

"I'd like to think it's because I wore 31, but I know it's because Cort wears it," Cordova said.

Dennison engenders that kind of loyalty, because he demands it of himself. He never forgot where he came from, often working out with Judge players when he finds himself at home - a rarity these days. That's because Seattle is his home now.

"Seattle is a great city," Cort said. "You have great communities out here. It's beautiful. I think Seattle has it all. They just need to get an NBA team back here, and it'll be all good."

Dennison is in the process of repaying the program that showed faith in him. Out of Washington's 2008 recruiting class, one-third were rated as two-star prospects. Despite his gaudy stat sheet, Cort didn't create a big buzz in the recruiting community. Other two-star players from that class include current UW kicker Erik Folk, who has two buzzer-beaters against USC on his college resume; Mason Foster, the No. 2 overall tackler in the country last year, and a third-round pick in the 2011 NFL Draft; and Dennison.

Even new Linebackers Coach Mike Cox wasn't 100 percent sure what to make of Dennison when the Tyrone Willingham era made way to Steve Sarkisian and a new way of thinking. "Originally I thought he was undersized, but an instinctive guy," Cox said during his initial evaluation. "His football instincts are off the charts when it comes to knowledge of our scheme and just general football. He knows things very well, which allows him to play very fast, even though he may not be one of the fastest guys out there."

Dennison became an invaluable part of Cox's plans by not only understanding all the linebacker positions, but also what the secondary and defensive line is doing too. That's why he eventually found himself at middle linebacker, the quarterback of the defense.

It's now part of his job as a senior to not only groom players like Gilliland, but also to anchor a defense set to take off after their furious finish in 2010.

"It's his time," said Cox. "He's a senior. You want all your seniors to be leaders. You can talk the talk,but you also have to walk the walk, and he can do that because of the plays he's made."

The same things that got Dennison to Washington are the same things that push him toward a potential pro career. It should come as no surprise that he won a weight lifting award during the team's post-season banquet. He was also named an Honorable Mention pick to the Pac-10 All-Academic team.

"I take a lot of pride in knowing everything that's going on," he said. "I watch a lot of film and ask a lot of questions. I just compete. When you compete and you have a strong attitude and keep believing in yourself, good things will happen."

Dennison talks to former ‘backers, like Foster and Donald Butler. He picks their brains for any little scrap of information that can help him be a better player. It all clicked for him a couple years ago in fall camp, when he had a string of eight practices with at least one interception.

"I had it all in me, but ever since these new coaches came in - they teach such detail, and they teach you so many nuances of the game that you normally don't see," he said. "The coaches teach us so much. My horizons and knowledge of the game just expanded." Fate has a funny way of working things out. I know Cort wasn't surprised to learn that Utah's first Pac-12 home game will be played against the Washington Huskies. Dennison's return to Rice-Eccles Stadium this fall will be awash with emotion, but once the game starts all those feelings will be flushed away with the ebb and flow of the game.

Cordova will be there. So will the whole Judge Memorial team. Not many will know Cort, but they know a Bulldog when they see one. Utah will suit up two - punter Sean Sellwood and Hawai'i transfer Lewis Walker.

"I'm rooting for Bulldogs," Cordova said, who added that he'll probably avoid any wardrobe malfunctions by wearing a Washington shirt and a Utah hat.

"I think it's pretty funny how things fall in line," said Dennison. "If you are a kid going to games at that school, you'd think it would be fun to play at that school, but I was handed an opportunity of a lifetime. It's been unbelievable. I couldn't have written a more perfect script. I came to a program that took a chance when others wouldn't take a risk, for whatever reason. If they were going to take a chance on me, I owe it to them to fulfill my duties and go out and compete and do the best job I can. And that's been my mindset. Luckily, good things have happened.

"I'm a Husky now. I wouldn't trade that for anything in the world." Top Stories