EAST LANSING, MICH. — Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard probably wouldn’t even recognize the skinny Georgia kid who arrived on campus in 2010.
“I’m a lot bigger than I was when I first got in,” Dennard said. “I was 165 pounds soaking wet and with the meal plan, with the nutritionist and of course (head strength and conditioning) coach (Ken) Mannie with his weight training plan, I ended up gaining 20 pounds my freshman season and playing at 180.
“Right now I’m at 195 pounds. I actually started the season at 200 pounds and dropped weight throughout the season but I’m 195 pounds and my body just matured after I got here.”
Dennard wasn’t just different physically when he came to East Lansing.
“He was quiet. I didn’t really hear him talk much,” senior linebacker Max Bullough said. “He was little. Man, he was little. If you could have a picture of then compared to now he has grown up as a person, as a football player and physically he has gotten much bigger and more mature. That kind of happens as you go through college and you are on your own for the first time.”
Dennard has gone from being a quiet, skinny kid to a vocal team leader.
“When I first got to campus I really was a shy guy, really didn’t talk too much,” Dennard said. “Once I got to know these guys such as Max Bullough and Isaiah Lewis and the rest of the guys on defense, just being with them and having them welcome me with open arms and basically accept me as their brothers along the years I really started talking more.
“These past two years I really started voicing myself and this past year was an opportunity for me to step up and become a leader and I saw the chance and I took it.”
MSU coach Mark Dantonio saw Dennard for the first time on film playing for Twiggs County (Ga.) High School, where he was a defensive back, wide receiver and kick returner.
Dennard also lettered in basketball and track and field.
Dantonio said they first met him in person on the track and decided to recruit him. At the time, Rivals rated him as a two-star player.
“When he got here and he came on to campus in the fall, it didn’t take long to understand what we had,” Dantonio said. “Some guy that was extremely special in terms of ability to concentrate, competitiveness, his knowledge of football, his ability to grasp concepts very, very quickly at the college level.
“But he was competitive, and so when he finally did get an opportunity to play and start — I think it was against Illinois in 2010, I think he had maybe two fumble recoveries or something of that nature, but he played a very, very solid game, and really he was a staple after that. He was a mainstay after that in our program.”
Like so many of the Spartans, Dennard excelled despite not being one of the top recruited players in the country.
He leads the team with four interceptions and eight pass break-ups and is fourth on the team with 56 tackles, including two for loss.
Dennard embraces being overlooked or underestimated and said he and his teammates will use that in the Big Ten championship game against highly favored Ohio State.
“It doesn’t matter to us,” Dennard said. “Me personally, I love being the underdog. Count me out. It just makes me play even harder. I think the team feels the same way. You ain’t got to show us no love, but at the end of the day we’ve got to play our game.
“We’re going to play our game, we’re going to play our style of football, and we’re going to see who’s the best team.”
Dennard is one of the major reasons the Spartans are ranked No. 1 in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision in total defense, rushing defense and pass efficiency defense.
Dennard and fellow cornerback Trae Waynes, free safety Kurtis Drummond and strong safety Isaiah Lewis have established what they call the “No-Fly Zone,” aimed at stopping opponents’ passing games.
Like Dennard, Lewis was not redshirted so the two have been together since the beginning.
“He’s a great athlete,” Lewis said. “He’s one of the leaders of our team, one of the captains. He’s respected, everywhere he’s respected. I respect him, everyone on the team respects him, people in the stands respect him, little kids respect him. Everyone wants to be like him. It’s been fun playing with him since we came in.”
This season Dennard has been recognized both nationally and in the Big Ten as one of the best defensive backs in college football.
He’s one of five finalists for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy for the nation’s best defensive played, the first Spartan to be a finalist for that award.
Dennard is one of three finalists for the Jim Thorpe Award for the nation’s best defensive back, only the second Spartan to be a finalist for that award. Todd Krumm was a finalist in 1987.
Dennard has already won the Tatum-Woodson Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year Award and was a unanimous first-team All-Big Ten selection by the coaches. The media also named him to the first team.
“It’s a blessing just to be even mentioned with those guys, other guys in the Big 10, and then being the one nominated to be the best defensive back in the Big 10 is an honor, is a privilege, but I give the honor to God,” Dennard said.
Bullough said the recognition Dennard has gotten this season is well-deserved.
“You really can’t see a transformation much more defining than what Quez went through,” Bullough said. “I think the success he has on the field, being a captain, and being a very influential person on this team, and where this team is sitting at, at 11-1, he is a big part of that and I think people know why.”
Dennard has transformed from a two-star recruit to a player ranked fifth at his position in early NFL pre-draft evaluations.
“When I first got here I didn’t really expect to be the player I am today,” Dennard said. “I really was hoping and dreaming that I could one day be one of the top players in the nation and one of the top players in the Big 10, of course, and hoping to go on and play in the NFL.
“But when I first got here I was really trying to focus on trying to be the best backup or be the best special teams contributor I could be at the time. It’s just an honor and just a blessing and really shows that hard work and prayer and belief actually works.”