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 likely will 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 and 1952), Allen Brenner (1968), Van Pelt (1971), Simpson (1973) and James Burroughs (1981).
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 was even better during his senior campaign. Dennard had 118 passes targeted into his area, allowing just 18 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 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 44 contests, Dennard has had 293 passes targeted into his territory, as the opponents completed 61 of those tries (20.81%) for 577 yards and three touchdowns, an average of 9.46 yards per reception and 1.97 yards per pass attempt.
In pass coverage, he not only registered 30 defended passes (20 break-ups and 10 thefts), but also rerouted or jammed his main coverage assignment away from 156 other tosses (53.24%). He was credited with 23 touchdown-saving tackles, six stops-for-loss and took down four receivers at the line of scrimmage for no gain, yielding 34 first downs. He also recorded 94 third-down stops and five more on fourth-down snaps vs. the passing game.
Dennard has a strong, solid overall body structure with good chest thickness, broad shoulders, decent arm length (30 1/2-inches) and hand width (9 inches), with an adequate wingspan (73 1/2-inches) and a defined upper-body frame, appearing bigger than his body weight indicates. He has a good bubble with fluid hips, strong, defined thighs and calves, along with a frame that could max out in the 205- to 210-pound range. He is a rangy type with tight skin and good biceps development. He possesses less than 6% body fat and appears to have the long fingers and natural hands needed to make the interception. He has continued to develop good overall muscle structure, as he is much more defined in his upper body than in years past. He has a good bubble, loose hips and strong thighs and calves, evident by his success standing his ground vs. lead blocker when stepping inside the box to support vs. the run.
The first thing you notice with Dennard is that he has that innate "sixth gear" (much faster than a second gear), as he is constantly in the "hip pocket" of receivers on deep routes. He runs with a quick stride and great balance, possessing exceptional stop-and-go ability (see 2013 Western Michigan, Iowa and Michigan games). He has more than enough fluidness to easily sink his hips and break on the ball in an instant. He has very good acceleration and explosion in his play, along with enough valid strength to be quite effective taking on ball-carriers. Dennard is an excellent athlete with the speed, quickness, agility and flexibility to become a "complete" player at the boundary position, but he also has the experience and versatility to perform at the "field" or "slot" cornerback spots. He might lack safety-like bulk for someone you want to play in the box, but one look at his numbers vs. the running game (made 10 touchdown-saving tackles on long runs by opposing ball-carriers since the beginning of 2012), you can see that he has no problem sifting through trash and making plays in tight quarters. He has the quick feet and sure hands to be very disruptive when taking the receiver off the route's progression. In 2013, through 13 starting assignments, there were 111 passes targeted into Dennard's area. He allowed just 17 receptions (15.32 percentage) for 91 yards, an average of 5.35 yards per pass completion and 0.8198 yards per pass attempt. He either rerouted or jammed his coverage assignments away from a nation-best 62 of those 111 tosses (55.86%), in addition to his 14 defended passes, he delivered 36 third-down stops and three more on fourth-down snaps, as he posted three stops-for-loss and twice stopped receivers at the line of scrimmage for no gain, in addition to registering 13 touchdown-saving tackles vs. the aerial game. He is a quick reactionary type of player, one that opposing offensive coordinators should have been wise to stay away from him in 2013. He is aware and alert to backfield activity and has proven to be a capable pursuer when the "front seven" fails to make plays vs. the rushing attack. He runs with short, quick pitter-patter type of steps coming out of his pedal and shows more than enough acceleration and burst to redirect with no wasted motions. He has exceptional quickness to run the field (see 2013 Iowa, Indiana, Purdue, Michigan, Northwestern and Ohio State games. He can shadow receivers underneath and also run with the speedy pass catchers on deep patterns, thanks to the footwork he shows in transition and the impressive balance when closing on the play.
Dennard is the type that knows his role and assignments of other teammates. He is savvy enough to call defensive signals from the secondary and is often alert to play action and misdirection, doing a very good job of realigning the defense to insure the offense will not generate a big gain (see 2013 South Florida, Illinois and Michigan games). Dennard has possibly the best anticipation of the ball in flight by a Big Ten cornerback since Leon Hall‘s days for Michigan (2003-06). He Dennard is a very smart player. He not only knows his assignments, but also those of each of his teammates. He plays with good instincts and keeps his head on a swivel working through trash to quickly locate the ball. His is especially alert in zone coverage, doing a fine job of handling the switch-off. He is best when making plays in front of him, but shows the vision to track the ball over his shoulder on deep routes. He is a good student of the game who puts in extra hours in the film room to study his opponents. He is very capable of handling the mental aspect of the game, reminding me of Troy Vincent (ex Buffalo Bills) for his ability to scan the field and find the pigskin. His knowledge of every secondary position could see him bring immediate value as a nickel back at the next level. He has enough range to play safety and is capable of making the coverage call and checks. He simply knows the defensive scheme better than any MSU defender in recent years.
Dennard has that quiet "flare" to his overall performance. He is not the type that will "beat on his chest" after a big play, but he has no problem playing with a "take no prisoners" attitude. He is a lot like Ike Taylor (Pittsburgh) — relishing his role when coaches regularly ask him to handle the opponent's most dangerous receiving target. He has that true passion for the game that the younger players on the team have started to emulate, thus resulting in the Spartans having the most complete defensive unit in the college ranks. He loves challenges, yet, as soon as the game is over, he will be the first in the film room, looking for areas in his game that he feels he needs to improve. When Dennard steps on the field, he is all business. He plays with good enthusiasm and emotion. He shows toughness in run force and will compete until the whistle. He is a good playmaker who seems to be in the right place to make the play. He plays with good effort throughout and will not hesitate to stick his hat into the pile to make the play. He is supportive in run force and very active with his hands in attempts to reroute and jam the receivers at the line of scrimmage. He is relentless in his pursuit of receivers in his area. How else can you explain him limiting quarterbacks to just a 17.33 pass completion percentage since the beginning of the 2012 campaign (35 completions of 202 attempts)? He is very aggressive in run force and in applying the press (rerouted receivers away from 52-of-111 passes into his area in 2013, in addition to breaking up 10 passes and picking off four others). He plays as if his next play is his last and will not hesitate to "stick his hat" in the pile to make the play in tight quarters. He competes for the jump ball and shows good urgency getting to the ball-carrier on broken plays and outside runs.
Key and Diagnostic Skills
I do not think there is a cornerback in college with better key-and-diagnose ability like Dennard, evident by his incredible ability to get his head turned around to track the ball in flight and always be in position to make an impact on the play. He shows outstanding anticipation of where the ball will go when it is in flight and has very good closing ability when a receiver manages to get a step on him (see 2013 South Florida, Purdue, Illinois and Michigan games). He plays the deep zone like a safety, doing a good job of reading the action in front of him and reacting in an instant. He can lock on and run with any receiver in man coverage and you will never see him guess or gamble — he's too smart to rely on chances. To call Dennard a "quick reader" on the football field would be an understatement. Even rival coaches feel he is the most instinctive player out there on game day and quarterbacks have little success getting him to bite on play action or misdirection. He shows very good timing and a great feel for the ball in flight, defending 14 passes in 2013 while also rerouting his assignments away from 62-of-111 targeted passes into his area (see 2013 South Florida, Western Michigan, Notre Dame, Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, Nebraska and Ohio State games). He comes up quickly to lend run support and you will not see him guess any when in deep coverage. No opposing quarterbacks have ever fooled him after the snap. Whether in man or zone coverage, he stays on the hip of the receiver and all of those touchdown-saving tackles out of his area were enough to convince scouts that he is very capable of coming off his assignment to help others. His field intelligence is evident in his ability to lend support vs. the run and understand the assignments of all of his teammates. He is quick to locate the ball and excels when asked to work inside the box in run force. Dennard has the uncanny knack for sifting out the ball and is rarely caught out of position. He plays the ball very well and knows how to work through the receiver to bat the ball away. He knows how to recognize blocking schemes and it is very difficult to fool him at the snap. He is not the type who will guess in coverage, knowing what he has to do and completing that assignment. His ability and knowledge of the defense will see him do a very good job of making adjustment calls.
Man Coverage Ability
With his speed, leaping ability and timing, Dennard excels in man coverage, evident by his shutdown ability (allowed just 10 completions of 77 passes targeted to him through nine games this year, limiting those opponents to a gain of just 60 yards, in addition to rerouting/jamming his assignment on 46 of those tosses, to go with seven pass break-ups and three interceptions). He is disciplined in his man coverage, sticking tightly to receivers vs. double moves. His 46 reroutes demonstrate that he is very effective in press coverage. You can see immediately on game films that he is a fast-twitched player that can move well and mirror a receiver throughout the route's progression. He is so good at mirroring and trailing receivers, that you might consider him to be a stalker! He gets his head turned around properly on deep routes and has that second gear and balance to quickly recover if a receiver has a rare chance to get behind him. He has outstanding leverage, body control and burst coming out of his pedal and the quick feet, along with loose hips to make turns with no wasted motion. He is especially effective at mirroring underneath (see his battles with tight ends in the 2013 Iowa and Northwestern games) and, with his exceptional speed, I doubt if even NFL types will be able to escape him, as he simply refuses to allow any separation through the route's progression. He shows outstanding press/jam ability and he is equally effective when trailing and mirroring the receiver. He has that keen awareness that rarely sees him be fooled when a receiver makes his cuts. Simply put, he plays his man tighter than a vice-grip. He can be very active and physical with his hands. He can generate a strong jolt to reroute receivers at the line and knows how to stay on the hip of the receivers through their routes. He shows sharp plant and drive agility, and he will never get sloppy on deep routes and round his angles to the ball. He is best when using his size to jam the opponent at the line. He can mirror in the short area and shows quick reactions when playing off the line. He has outstanding feet and balance when adjusting to the receiver's moves and can flip his hips, redirect and plant sharply coming out of his breaks without needing to gather.
Zone Coverage Ability
Dennard is a "master" at seeing what is going on in front of him, thanks to his exceptional key-and-diagnose ability (see 2013 Western Michigan, Iowa and Michigan games). He is outstanding in his ability to anticipate routes in zone coverage and you can never say that he is the type that will get "lazy eyes." He is textbook-perfect when it comes to dropping back, reading the pattern development and instantly reacting to the play. He has the range, size and experience to make plays in zone coverage, as he is very quick to react to action in front of him. It is rare to see him stay in his backpedal for too long, as he breaks instantly to close on the ball with intent and aggression. He has very good awareness handling switch-offs (see 2013 Iowa, Indiana, Purdue, Michigan and Northwestern games). He has very good eyes reading the quarterback and is alert to threats. He will come off his assigned area with no hesitation to attack the ball when ball-carriers and receivers manage to get by MSU defenders at the opposite side of the field (has made 19 touchdown-saving tackles out of his assigned area in 2013). He has suddenness and quickness in his plant-and-drive moving forward to make plays on the pigskin. He can drop with fluid hip moves and an effortless pedal, and his ability to read pattern development and react to the play is the best of any defensive back in the collegiate ranks. He has a sudden burst to make plays underneath, much like Champ Bailey (New Orleans) did before injuries limited the Bronco this season. He gets good depth in his pass drops and, when reacting to the ball, he always seems to take good angles. He is very good at reading and reacting to the quarterback. He is alert and sees threats, doing a very nice job of quickly planting and driving on the ball. He sees the "big picture" and can easily drop or support to locate the ball.
Dennard is outstanding in his backpedal and transition, as you will never see him take extra steps. He is quick to react and has that flexibility in his hips to transition fast with no wasted motion. You can also see that he generally has a very good burst out of his pedal to turn and run on the ball. He is very fluid dropping back and coming out of his pedal, doing a nice and smooth job turning and running to the ball. You will never see him take extra steps in transition and he plays with very good anticipation, keeping the receiver from getting into his route with his ability to turn, run and get right on the hip of his man. The thing I like is that while tall, he can flip his hips and has the best change-of-direction agility for any defensive back I've seen at his size. He is a smooth and fluid mover who makes covering his man one-on-one look very easy. He has that highly quick acceleration to close if a receiver gets behind him and recovers instantly from any transition glitches. Even with his speed, he is smooth and controlled, showing good technique and staying square when moving in reverse.
Ball Reaction Skills
Dennard has instant reaction ability to the ball in flight. He shows urgency when closing and a very sharp burst coming out of his breaks. He has pinpoint accuracy, especially when planting and driving to break up slants (see 2013 Illinois and Michigan games). He can easily cover, track and jump to make plays on the ball downfield. He demonstrates outstanding speed when closing on the ball, especially when playing vs. the run. He has above-average breakdown in space and is a master at reading the receiver's eyes and hand movements going for the ball down field, whether to deflect or pick off the pass (see 2013 Western Michigan, South Florida, Iowa, Michigan and Northwestern games). He is consistent with his elevation going for the ball in flight, showing natural hands that he uses to secure the ball, whether on picks or returns. He has exceptional timing coming out of his breaks and the hand/eye coordination, along with the timing to get to the ball at its high point. He is quick to come up in the box and fill the rush lanes (see 2013 Youngstown State, Notre Dame games). He excels at closing on the ball, showing the burst to make plays in front of him and the lateral movement to string plays wide. When he plays the ball, he will not hesitate to compete for it in traffic. He is also very efficient at tracking the ball in flight and times his leaps well and makes every effort to get to the ball. You can see on film that he is very alert to his surroundings and plays like a grizzled veteran with his ability to reads the receiver's eyes and hand movements when going for the ball down field to make the big deflection or interception.
Dennard has some of the best range and catch-up speed of any cornerback in the 2014 draft class. He excels at pursuing and making plays at the opposite side of the field (see 2013 Youngstown State, Iowa, Indiana, Purdue, Illinois and Michigan games). He accelerates fast, especially if a receiver manages to get behind him, but he is in an elite class when it comes to pursuing across the field. With his range, Dennard could be more of a gambler on the field, but he chooses to play mistake-free ball. He is the type that carries his equipment well (not much loss in speed running with his pads on compared to sprinting in shorts). He has the burst and second gear to quickly get under the ball in flight and enough hip snap and change-of-direction agility to get back into deeper secondary action. You can see that he not only accelerates well, but plays with that needed "second gear." His pursuit range and catch-up ability appear outstanding on the game tapes viewed.
It is interesting to note that the two touchdowns Dennard gave up during his senior year came on short throws of 3 yards or less, vs. receivers at least 5 inches taller than him. What might concern some is his standing leaping ability vs. the bigger receivers. What helps him compensate vs. those type of opponents is that he has what I might term as "airplane-like" take-off skills (much better elevating over bigger receivers when running with his man, as he has impeccable timing and ball anticipation skills) rather that great ability to just leap up from a stationary position. He can really "sky" going up for the ball, as he not only shows excellent leaping ability, but does a nice job of catching outside his framework. He has the timing and ball- hawking skills to make plays on the thrown ball, but there is a definite height disadvantage when he has to leap from a stand-still position vs. much taller receivers. Otherwise, he seems to never be out of position and, with his superb jump-test numbers, along with good timing and quick reactions to make the play, he has the talent to be a highly effective ball thief at the next level. Yes, he will lose a few jump ball opportunities vs. bigger receivers, but it is not due to a lack of effort, just size issues. He just knows his timing has to be perfect in order to get to the pass at its high point. He is fearless and shows little regard for his body fighting for the ball in a crowd. He has that body flexibility and adjustment skills to track the ball in flight and the athletic ability to extend and pluck the ball away from his frame. He has a good understanding for taking proper angles out of his breaks, along with the skills to move and position to make plays on the pigskin.
Dennard has receiver-like hands when trying to secure the interception. He has soft hands for his position, an obvious asset for a cornerback. He will consistently extend to make the catch (see 2013 Iowa and Michigan games) and it is very rare to see him cradle the ball on his body. During the second part of 2013, Dennard showed that he could excel executing the tip drill and has natural ball skills that had been hidden previously. The result was that offensive coordinators became wise to keeping the ball away from his area, limiting those opportunities (fellow CB Trae Waynes was tested more often). He has that natural feel for the ball in flight and smooth hips to easily adjust to the ball in the air. He catches the ball with his hands rather than use his body as a crutch. He is very conscious of ball security and to label his hands as "receiver's type" is reasonable, even if he has a few PBUs that could have been interceptions in 2013 (see 2013 Minnesota and Ohio State games). He does a nice job of catching the ball away from the body's frame. He is able to make the tough catch in traffic and will not hesitate to compete for the pigskin in a crowd. He does a nice job of using his hands to keep blockers away from his chest when trying to slip blocks working in trash.
Not only is Dennard a highly efficient run supporter, he has developed NFL-caliber blitzing skills. One needs to watch the Michigan game to see those plays where he greatly frustrated the Wolverines' All-American left offensive tackle, Taylor Lewan, when he impacted the backfield. He is quick to see the running play develop and is fast getting downhill to the ball-carrier (see 2013 South Florida, Illinois and Michigan games). He knows how to avoid bigger blockers, but once engaged, he is very active using his hands and surprisingly strong punch to shed. He has very good "strike" ability, as he puts great weight emphasis behind his hits, along with great balance to bounce off power moves and still make the tackle. This is a "hidden gem" in his jewelry case, as Dennard might be the most efficient cornerback in college taking on ball-carriers. He made 30 of his tackles in run force, as those ball-carriers managed just 44 yards (1.47 ypc), two first downs and no touchdowns vs. the defender in 2013. He also shows great range and no fear taking on bigger blockers, making five touchdown-saving tackles chasing down ball-carriers on long runs at the opposite side of the field as a senior (see 2013 South Florida, Illinois, North-western, Minnesota and Ohio State games). He is a strong and physical tackler who is not afraid to come up and hit bigger guys at the line of scrimmage. You will never see him "take a side" in run force, and is extremely fast going down hill to the ball-carrier, as he is quick to see the play develop. The thing I like is that he will often leverage and get involved in the pile. He has become a great factor for the MSU defense supporting vs. the run, as he comes to the ball with little or no delay (including solos and assists, he has delivered five stops-for-loss and took down 10 opponents at the line of scrimmage for no gain, as two of his QB pressures caused interceptions). He supports with no hesitation, uses his hands well to protect himself from the blocker or two-gaps and seems to really like contact. While he does hit with aggression, he knows when to break down and play under control. Despite his defensive back-size, Dennard hits like a linebacker and seems to relish playing inside the box. He stays low in his pads, extends his arms properly and keeps his base wide to wrap and secure. He takes very good angles to the ball, especially along the corners. He is better than most other college cornerbacks at getting involved vs. the run. He will leverage and come to the line with little delay.
Dennard hits like a linebacker and, much like Pittsburgh's Ike Taylor, he loves to mix it up in tight areas. He is a physical striker who will use his hands to grab, but is usually a collision type hitter who puts a lot of "thud" behind those hits. He will hit and finish with proper wrap-up tackle technique and does a nice job of squaring up when working through those tight regions. He can be a very explosive hitter, as he will generally square up and put his hat up under the chin of his opponent. He is a classic wrap-up tackler who does a nice job of bringing his hips and keeps his hands inside his frame to combat the taller, more physical receivers trying to get a push off him. He works hard to fit and make the sure tackle and even when washed out of the play, you always see a consistent effort from him. He has that "linebacker" mentality, as he likes to make plays in the box, but is better served in the open field. He's not the type that will go low to make the leg tackles, but he will not hesitate to get his body in front of the ball-carrier to wrestle the man down or knock him out of bounds.
IKE TAYLOR, Pittsburgh: Actually, you can see a lot of the NFL's hardest-hitting cornerback traits in Dennard's play. He excels in run support, much like Taylor, but when he delivers those collision-like tackles, you can see a lot of former Eagles and Browns standout Sheldon Brown in that style of play. He has that explosive open-field hitting style that can see him utilized at various positions in the secondary, based on the offense, much like the way the Patriots incorporate Devin McCourty on the field. He has those keen eyes and instincts to excel in zone coverage, making him an immediate contributor playing slot cornerback, where Green Bay's Casey Hayward has made a "nice living." Some compare Dennard's man coverage skills to that of former Tampa Bay standout Ronde Barber, but Dennard's game is also based on intelligence, positioning, quickness and "laying the wood" on a receiver. He hits with a thud in run force, but can also put on the after-burners when needed to ride the hip of a receiver on deep routes. With the slew of bigger receivers entering the NFL in recent years, an enforcer with his blend of speed, ball reaction skills and urgency should make him a premium find for some team on draft day.
Dave-Te' Thomas has more than 40 years of experience scouting for the NFL. With the NFL Draft Report, Thomas handles a staff that evaluates and tests college players before the draft and prepares the NFL's official Draft Packet, which is distributed to all 32 teams prior to the draft. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.