Dennard excels as part of Michigan State secondary

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.”