There is no way of knowing whether Thurgood Dennis would have already developed into a shutdown cornerback for a Division I college football program. No way to quantify how his 6-foot, 178-pound frame could handle wide receivers with a five-inch height advantage.
The only quantifiable measurement that allows anybody to make comparisons now is his speed. And speed, it turns out, Dennis has in bunches.
CBSSports.com college football writer Chris Huston recently ranked the fastest players in college football among those with track backgrounds. Using official “Fully Automated Time” measurements that included 100- and 200-meter dash times, he compiled a list that included players from Florida State, California, LSU, Baylor, Boise State, Texas, Rutgers and South Carolina.
Among that group was one player from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, a Division III school that plays in the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference: Thurgood Dennis, dubbed the fastest returning player in all of college football.
Who is Thurgood Dennis? He is the defending D-III national outdoor track champion in the 100-meter dash and the 4 x 400 relay. And it would appear he’s about to garner national attention on the football scene as well.
“He’s by far the fastest player I’ve ever coached,” UW-Eau Claire football coach Todd Glaser said. “I think he’s got a lot of make-up speed, so if he makes a mistake, he can make it up. He had a really good year.”
Dennis, a native of Allouez, Wis., described himself as a late bloomer who received little interest from Division I schools for track or football. His largest football offer was from Division II Minnesota Duluth. He was offered a half scholarship by the Wisconsin track team, but the offer came the summer before his freshman year of college — after he already enrolled in classes at UW-Eau Claire — and he would have had to live in an off-campus hotel initially.
“To me, that felt like a wasted year,” Dennis said. “Even though it would have been cool to run as a Badger, I was already pretty well set at my school. I would have had to give up football cold turkey, which is not something I wanted to do. I just don’t want to stop playing football.”
If Dennis proves to be as talented on the football field as he has on the track, he may not have to stop anytime soon. A football player with his rare speed could ultimately cause an NFL team to take a chance on him, even though those decisions remain two years away.
Last season as a sophomore, Dennis was thrust into a starting role at cornerback when one of the team’s seniors sustained a head injury. He went on to record 58 tackles with three pass deflections in 10 games. Now, his role — and expectations — are going to change considerably as an upperclassmen.
“We’re expecting to put him in a leadership role to help our young kids out,” Glaser said. “He works extremely hard. His work ethic is tremendous. He’s a role model in the classroom, on the field. We want him to make big plays. We know he’s got big-play capabilities.”
During the national track championships, Dennis won the 100 with a time of 10.77, but his career best is 10.30. His fastest 200 time is a 20.86. As a means of comparison, the provisional qualifying times for the 2012 United States track and field Olympic team were 10.28 in the 100 and 20.75 in the 200.
Dennis lists his goals as trying to play in the NFL or qualify for the Olympics.
“It’s kind of weird to say you’re preparing for the NFL or the Olympics, but you have to have a goal,” Dennis said. “Otherwise, what would you be motivated by? I just want to keep playing both sports as long as I can and to the best of my ability. Wherever I end up with that, then I’ll be happy with it.”
Despite the goals he has put forth for himself, Dennis also is levelheaded and realistic about his chances. He recognizes the odds of a Division III player being drafted in the NFL are astronomical, though he is holding out hope he could be taken by a team in free agency.
Since 1991, only 16 Division III players have been selected in the NFL Draft — none higher than the fourth round. There have been 5,920 selections made by NFL teams since that span. In other words, DIII players are drafted .0027 percent of the time.
Dennis is majoring in English education and wants to become a teacher and a football coach at a high school near the Twin Cities. He compared his football abilities to Jarrett Bush, a 6-foot, 200-pound cornerback for the Green Bay Packers from Utah State.
“It’s so rare for a Division III athlete to show himself to an NFL team,” Dennis said. “I would love to play in the NFL. That would be huge. I think I could even be on a practice squad and sort of imitate the other team’s fastest guy or contribute on special teams.”
If Dennis earns the opportunity to perform in front of scouts with an NFL combine-style workout, he likely will have to wow them with a strong 40-yard dash time. Dennis said he hadn’t run a legitimate 40 since his junior year of high school, when he ran a 4.81, although his body has changed drastically since that time. He was clocked at 4.63 running in flat shoes on a basketball floor at UW-Eau Claire, but he said it wasn’t an accurate representation of his speed.
“Our 40-yard dash training for the football team, the upperclassmen do a training part of it and only the freshmen truly get measured,” Dennis said. “It’s on an old, crappy system. You’ve got to put your thumb down on the ground, and it always is bugging out. I would hope I would be somewhere in the 4.5 to 4.4 range.”
Dennis indicated he still needed to develop a greater comfort level as a cornerback and maintain a sense of confidence that he could stop any receiver. If he made a misstep last season, he typically tackled the ball carrier from behind anyway because he was faster than everybody. But those mistakes won’t allow him to make a pro team.
For now, Dennis’ goals remain in front of him — where he hopes to keep receivers as well.
“He’s a quick learner and he got better every game last year,” Glaser said. “I think by the time he’s done, he’s going to be something really special.”