Michigan State University Spartans
Dry Branch, Georgia
Twiggs County High School
Perhaps it is fitting that Dennard's teammates used to call the Georgia native "Country" earlier in his Spartans career. Based on his stellar performance during his junior campaign that carried over into 2013, where he was simply spectacular, the senior ended the university's drought for producing All-American and will likely see him become one of the few defensive backs in Michigan State history to be selected in the first round of the NFL Draft.
Ever since Herb Adderley was a first round choice by both the Green Bay Packers and the New York Titans (American Football League; now known as the Jets) in 1961, no other Spartans defensive back has heard their name called in the opening round of the draft. Safety Brad Van Pelt was a first round choice by the New York Giants in 1973, but he was taken as a linebacker, a position he would play throughout his professional career.
In fact, since Adderley was chosen in the first round back in 1961, 25 other MSU players were first round choices. Since Adderley, the earliest a Spartans cornerback would be selected was James Burroughs, a third round pick by Baltimore in 1982. Only three other Michigan State defensive backs have been selected in the first three rounds since Adderley became a Packer — safety Bill Simpson (second round by the Los Angeles Rams in 1974), safety Tom Hannon (third round by Minnesota in 1977) and safety Eric Smith (taken by the Jets in the 2006 third round).
Dennard became Michigan State's first legitimate first-team All-American selection among their secondary performers since Harlon Barnett garnered that honor in 1989. In the history of MSU football, the only defensive backs to receive All-American first-team accolades have been James Ellis (Spartans' only defensive back to earn that honor twice — 1951/52), Allen Brenner (1968), Van Pelt (1971), Simpson (1973) and James Burroughs (1981).
Only one of 11 defensive backs to be placed on the 2013 Nagurski Award (nation's best defensive player) Watch List, Dennard is the unquestioned "field general" of a secondary that is part of a squad that led the nation throughout all 13 weeks in total defense (allowed just 248.15 yards per game). The Spartans also closed out the 2013 regular season schedule leading the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision ranks in rushing defense (80.77 yards per game) and opponent third-down conversions (.277; 53-of-191).
The media has attached the moniker of "Air Traffic Controller" on the senior cornerback and dubbed the territory that Dennard covers as a "No Fly Zone." The Spartan defender has more than lived up to that lofty billing. During his senior campaign, Dennard had 118 passes targeted into his area, allowing just eighteen of those tosses to be completed (15.25%) for 104 yards, as he recorded 14 passes defended (four interceptions, 10 deflections) and rerouted/jammed his man coverage assignments away from 67 of those tosses (56.78%).
Those receivers produced an average of 5.78 yards per reception vs. Dennard, the lowest figure by any starting defensive back since the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) era began in 1998. He also held the opposition to an average of 0.88 yards per pass attempt.
That pass attempt figure is the lowest ever recorded by any college player since The NFL Draft Report, a scouting information service, began compiling in-depth statistical reports for the league in 1968. In fact, only two other players went through an entire season allowing less that one yard per pass attempt.
Jim Marsalis of Tennessee State, held those receivers to just 0.969 yards per attempt in 1968. Marsalis was selected in the first round of the 1969 NFL Draft by the Kansas City Chiefs, earning league Defensive Rookie of the Year honors that season. He started for the Chiefs throughout the 1976 season before ending his career as a member of the New Orleans Saints in 1977.
Marsalis was later followed by Deion Sanders of Florida State in 1988 (0.935 yard average), as the two-time NFC Defensive Player of the Year made his professional debut with the Atlanta Falcons in 1989 after they selected him in the first round of the draft. He played for Atlanta until 1993, spending time with San Francisco (1994), Dallas (1995-1999) and Washington (2000) before ending his NFL career with Baltimore (2004-2005). That places Dennard is some very elite company, but the "ever so humble" Georgia native has only one goal in mind as his college career came to an end — helping the Spartans defeat Stanford in the 2014 Rose Bowl.
The cornerback often deflects praise to his teammates, calling his success a "team effort." That attitude has seen the quiet "lockdown" cornerback receive the national attention he rightly deserves in 2013. He is the first Michigan State player to win the Thorpe Award, which has been given to the nation's best defensive back since 1986. The award was immediately accepted as one of the nation's top collegiate sports honors. Winners are judged on their performance on the field, athletic ability and character.
Dennard was also the recipient of the Tatum Award, which is given annually to the most outstanding defensive back in the Big Ten Conference and is named in honor of the late Jack Tatum, a three-year starter from 1968-70 and two-time All-American at Ohio State. Known for his tenacity and fierce style of play, Tatum was named National Defensive Player of the Year as a senior, as the mainstay of the Ohio State defense for three seasons helped the Buckeyes compiled a 27-2 record and win the 1968 National Championship and two Big Ten Conference titles, in addition to playing in two Rose Bowls.
Dennard became the sixth Michigan State player to be named the best at his respective position by the Touchdown Club of Columbus, joining Brad Van Pelt (1972 Defensive Back of the Year), Carl Banks (1983 Linebacker of the Year), Lorenzo White (1985 Running Back of the Year), Tony Mandarich (1988 Offensive Lineman of the Year) and Charles Rogers (2002 Receiver of the Year). He also was named the Tatum-Woodson Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year and earned first-team All-Big Ten honors for the second year in a row (unanimous pick by the league's coaches).
"Darqueze Dennard is a complete corner," Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio said. "He's an extremely competitive and gifted athlete. Darqueze has great ball skills, out-standing tackling ability, remarkable change of direction and plays the deep very well. He really has been a cornerstone of our defense for the last three years."
"I'm awfully proud of the way Darqueze Dennard has played not only this season but throughout his entire career," Spartans assistant head coach/defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said. "He is coached by the best defensive backs coach in the country, in Harlon Barnett, and without a doubt, Darqueze has turned out to be the best defensive back in the country. The best way to describe him is fast, physical and smart. Plus, he has the ability to make big, game-changing plays."
The Spartans' rise to prominence on the defensive front coincided with Dennard's elevation to the starting lineup during his sophomore campaign. Michigan State had ranked 60th nationally vs. the pass (220.08) and 43rd in total defense (353.77 ypg) during the Twiggs County High School recruit's true freshman season that saw the cornerback limited to just six games and two starting assignments, due to knee injury issues.
In 2011, Dennard took over "field" cornerback duties, starting 11 games, as MSU finished 11th in the nation vs. the pass (176.93 ypg) and led the Big Ten Conference, in addition to ending up sixth in the FBS by yielding just 277.43 yards per game. In the two contests that Dennard sat out due to injuries, the Spartans surrendered the second- and third-highest yardage totals for the schedule (415 vs. Minnesota and 370 vs. North-western).
With Dennard in the lineup that year, Michigan State's defense held the opposition to under 200 yards in three contests, including a low of 48 yards vs. Florida Atlantic. That season, he not only defended six passes, but also rerouted/jammed his pass coverage assignments away from 30-of-62 tosses targeted into his area. He recorded seven touchdown-saving tackles, set up a scoring drive after blocking a field goal and killed twenty more possessions by delivering the final tackle on those series.
The best was yet to come, as Dennard, a first-team All-Big Ten Conference selection as a junior, did more than enough on the field to garner All-American consideration. He started all 13 contests, pacing a squad that ranked ninth nationally in both pass defense (175.77 ypg) and scoring defense (16.31 ppg), in addition to again leading the conference while finishing fourth in the nation with an average of 274.38 yards per game in total defense.
Dennard established himself as perhaps the hardest-hitting defensive back to wear a Big Ten Conference team uniform since the days of Ohio State's Jack Tatum (1967-70) and Michigan's Heisman Trophy winner, Charles Woodson (1995-97). Evidence to back that claim was his dominance as a shutdown cornerback, as he allowed only 18-of-91 passes targeted into his territory (19.78%, the lowest completion percentage allowed by any starting cornerback in the FBS in 2012), as opponents managed averages of only 8.39 yards per completion and 1.66 yards per attempt.
Dennard recorded an incredible 33 third-down stops, adding two more on fourth-down snaps during his junior season. He delivered 22 of his 52 hits inside the red zone, posting four of his stops behind the line of scrimmage. He also produced nine touchdown-saving tackles, racing out of his assigned area to make those crucial stops after opponents had eluded other MSU defenders. The hard-hitting cornerback also caused his coverage assignments to drop five of the balls intended for them.
The 2013 All-American and All-Big Ten Conference first-team selection was also a finalist for the Nagurski Award (defensive player of the year). He collected 62 tackles and firmly entrenched himself as the best "shutdown" pass defender in the nation. Taking over "boundary" cornerback duties after starting at the "field" position the previous two years, Dennard's keen field vision and explosive closing speed has seen him deliver twenty touchdown-saving tackles.
The Thorpe Award recipient often came out of his territory to make those plays when opponents managed to elude other Spartans defenders. He produced a total of 44 third-down stops (37 vs. the pass), five more on fourth-down snaps and registered 23 hits inside the red zone, including 13 on goal-line stands.
How Dennard ended up in a Michigan State uniform was a complete "accident." While competing as a defensive back and wide receiver at Twiggs County High School, the two-way performer was lightly recruited, drawing some interest from Oklahoma State, Wake Forest, Middle Tennessee State and Utah State, with MTSU the only institution to offer him a scholarship during his prep senior season.
Michigan State recruiter Dave Warner was trying to attend a game in Vienna, Georgia, where present Spartans wide receiver Keith Mumphrey was scheduled to play for Dooley County High. Somehow, Warner "zigged instead of zagged" and arrived in Dry Branch, Georgia, population 2,049. He saw a young cornerback playing for Twiggs County and made note. He later returned to see Mumphrey's team take on Dennard's during the 2009 schedule and came away impressed.
Warner was so impressed after intently evaluating the player shadowing Mumphery. The next day, Dennard received a phone call asking him to visit Michigan State. Soon after, MSU coach Mark Dantonio offered the Georgia native a scholarship. "God's work," the cornerback recalls.
Four years later, Dennard is the unquestioned leader of one of the elite defensive units in college football. Many scouts are predicting that he will be drafted much earlier than his older cousin, former Nebraska cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, who was taken by the New England Patriots in the seventh round of the 2012 draft.
At the Big Ten Conference football media day function prior to the 2013 season kicking off, Dennard recalls his decision to become a Spartan and the "growing pains" he experienced earlier in his career. "I never dreamed I'd get a chance to play in the Big Ten." Nor did the player, whose teammates used to call him "Country," imagine he would be dressed in suit and tie and representing his school at the Big Ten's premier publicity event.
"I was rough around the edges when I first arrived," Dennard said. Michigan State middle linebacker Max Bullough agreed, calling him shy, quiet and often out of his element.
"But Darqueze has changed a lot," said Bullough, another All-Big Ten pick. "He's got an unbelievable amount better at football and socially, too. He's more open. He's able to handle the media. He's an unbelievable athlete. He'll never cause trouble. He's never out at night or has an issue. He is there to work, do his job and win football games."
One of Dennard's chores recently has been to stay in touch with cousin Alfonzo. He has been picking Alfonzo's brain for tips on preparing to play in the NFL. "I've talked to Alfonzo about it and with guys from Michigan State who made it," the cornerback said. "Basically, they say to work hard and don't think too far ahead. Those guys have told me I've got the talent to play at that level. Just play hard and don't change nothing."
Another place Dennard can go for NFL advice is to his position coach, Harlon Barnett, who was an All-American at Michigan State in 1989 and went on to a seven-year pro career with Cleveland, New England and Minnesota. "Not too many coaches were All-Americans," Dennard said. "Coach B has been a great influence on me with all the values he has instilled."
Barnett can thank MSU's recruiter Dave Warner for getting Dennard to commit to becoming a Spartan when he signed his national letter of intent to attend Michigan State on January 28th, 2010. Prior to his arrival in Michigan, the Georgia native lettered in football, basketball and track at Twiggs County High School.
Dennard lettered all four years in football, but he began to realize his emerging football skills during his junior season in 2008. He earned Atlanta Journal-Constitution and GSWA All-State honors as a wide receiver, leading the Middle Georgia Class A region in total receptions (61), receiving yards (923) and touchdown catches (17). That year, he hauled in a career-best 18 tosses for 255 yards vs. Wilkinson County and also featured seven grabs for 118 yards vs. Wilcox County.
As a senior in 2009, Dennard led the Cobras to an 11-2 record, capturing the Class 2A Region title, as Twiggs County scored 468 points and gave up just 119. The two-time All-State selection on offense, he was named to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution All-State team as a defensive back. The Georgia Sports Writers Association awarded him honorable mention All-State accolades at defensive back, in addition to receiving All-Middle Georgia recognition as a kick returner.
During his senior season, Dennard pulled down 40 passes for 502 yards and 11 touch-downs to guide his squad to the state quarter-finals. On defense, he returned two of his nine interceptions for touchdowns, adding 50 tackles. He also scored twice while averaging 27.2 yards as a punt returner, picking up Class A Super 11 Team honors from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Georgia High School Football Daily.
At the conclusion of his Cobras' career, Dennard played in the 2009 Georgia Athletic Coaches Association North-South All-Star Game, where he scored on a 48-yard reception in the third quarter. In addition to his gridiron success, he lettered in basketball for coach Dwayne White. In track, he recorded a top time of 10.88 in the 100-meter dash at the 2010 Georgia High School Association 2010 Outdoor Championships. He would finish second in that event during the final heat, clocking at 10.933.
While most draft analysts have ranked Dennard as one of the top five cornerbacks eligible for the 2014 draft, The NFL Draft Report has provided the 32 league scouting departments with further evidence to back up their claim that the Spartan is not only the most complete defensive back in the collegiate game, but also rank him as one of the top 10 overall best players in the game.
Their research/statistical department cite the Michigan State senior's all-around play since the beginning of the 2012 season as proof positive to back up their claim. During that span of 26 games, the versatile defender has had 211 passes targeted into his area, as opposing quarterbacks completed 35 of those tosses (16.59%) for 242 yards and just two touchdowns, averaging 6.91 yards per reception and 1.15 per pass attempt.
Dennard appeared in 44 games for Michigan State, starting his last 40 appearances — 26 at "field" cornerback and 14 others at the "boundary" position…Posted 167 tackles (105 solos) that included a 2-yard sack, 10 stops for losses totaling 22 yards and five quarterback pressures…Caused two fumbles and recovered another…Deflected 20 passes and intercepted 10 others for 125 yards in returns (12.50 avg), including one touchdown…Made eight tackles for the kickoff coverage unit, including a pair of touchdown-saving stops.