NCAA FB

Dennard excels as part of Michigan State secondary

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EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP)

From two-star to just plain star - Darqueze Dennard is an inspiration to any player who feels overlooked in the recruiting process.

Dennard grew up in Georgia, but he left Southeastern Conference territory to play for Michigan State. To hear him tell the story, he didn't have much of a choice. The Spartans gave an opportunity to a young man who had been an afterthought to seemingly everyone else.

Now Dennard is an All-American and the winner of this year's Jim Thorpe Award, which goes to the nation's top defensive back. He and the fourth-ranked Spartans will take on fifth-ranked Stanford in the Rose Bowl on Wednesday.

''Seeing it all come together, it's truly a blessing,'' Dennard said. ''My story tells you, just keep praying, believing. Work hard and everything will work out.''

Dennard was a talented high school player, but that's no guarantee of success at the next level. Scout.com gave him only two stars in its recruiting rankings, and so did Rivals.com. Dennard isn't sure what might have happened to his career if Michigan State hadn't signed him as part of its 2010 recruiting class. He says his family's financial situation would have made it difficult for him to walk on somewhere.

''I probably wouldn't have played sports,'' he said. ''I'd probably have been home doing who knows what.''

In the Big Ten, it didn't take long for Dennard to prove he belonged. He started two games as a freshman for a Michigan State team that ended up tying for the Big Ten title, and he's only improved since then.

Dennard intercepted three passes in each of the next two seasons, and four more as a senior. Now he's part of a Michigan State team that's ranked No. 1 in the nation in total defense - and will play in the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1988.

''He's an extremely competitive young man,'' coach Mark Dantonio said. ''He's a guy that wasn't a highly recruited guy, but extremely quick, and he's got great presence on the football field, great ball skills, great presence, and he brings that to the table, and he brings his confidence to the table.''

Dennard teams up with fellow cornerback Trae Waynes and safeties Kurtis Drummond and Isaiah Lewis to form the nucleus of a bruising secondary. Michigan State is No. 1 in the nation against the run and No. 6 against the pass. The Spartans like to talk about turning the defense into a ''No-Fly Zone'' - and that was certainly evident in the Big Ten championship game against Ohio State.

The Buckeyes actually rushed for 273 yards against Michigan State's vaunted defense, but Dennard and the secondary held strong, preventing Ohio State from big passing plays that might have broken the game open. Braxton Miller completed only eight passes for the Buckeyes, and the Spartans were able to rally in the fourth quarter for a 34-24 win.

''Obviously there's a domino effect. If you're not very good on the edges, then it's going to fall, and you've got to take care of the edges another way,'' Dantonio said. ''We've put a lot of responsibility on (Dennard) and our other corner, Trae Waynes, and they've lived up to their billing.''

Dennard in particular embodies a Michigan State program that has turned into a consistent winner despite lacking the recruiting hype of rivals like Michigan, Ohio State and Notre Dame. When he came out of high school, Dennard looked like a marginal college prospect. Now, he looks like NFL material.

''It's just truly a blessing to even be in the shoes I am today. I really don't believe where I'm at,'' Dennard said. ''You could say I'm playing for those two-star guys that are looking for hope.''

Tagged: Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State, Ohio, Darqueze Dennard, Trae Waynes

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