Every so often, former Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard thinks back to the one time he got to take the field with his distant third cousin, current Patriots corner Alfonzo Dennard.
Back in 2011, Alfonzo, then a senior star at Nebraska, and the Cornhuskers got the best of the Spartans with a 24-3 victory. Darqueze, then a sophomore, had a strong showing with six tackles, but he was left wishing he had played a game more like his older cousin.
Alfonzo provided the lockdown stops, breaking up three passes in Nebraska’s win.
“He outshined me that game,” Darqueze recalled. “I’m looking forward to doing the same the next time we play.”
That game was more than two years ago — long before Darqueze blossomed into the 2013 Jim Thorpe Award recipient, given to the best cornerback in the county. Dennard, a unanimous All-America selection, finished his senior season with four interceptions and 10 pass breakups, anchoring a shutdown defense that led the Spartans to a 13-1 record and a Rose Bowl victory.
It’s unclear when the Dennards will get on the same field again, but for Darqueze, the journey begins Thursday in New York City where he is likely to be the first cornerback taken in the NFL Draft.
Dennard and Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert are considered by many experts to be the top two corners in the draft, but Dennard is ignoring the hype.
After attending the Combine in February, Dennard returned to Michigan State to finish classes. When he wasn’t busy visiting with NFL teams, he attended the Spartans’ spring practice, which has helped him ease his mind during the whole process.
“After my bowl game, I haven’t watched ‘SportsCenter’ or the NFL Network, I stay away from all those things,” Dennard said. “I’ve got faith in God and whatever pick it is, I’m blessed to be drafted into the NFL. I’m in a good place and anxious to start my journey.
“[Alfonzo] told me to just enjoy the process and ease your mind. I’m just taking it a day at a time.”
Michigan State finished the season ranked third in the nation, allowing just 13.2 points per game. At the heart of their success was Dennard, who proved to be a true shutdown corner in the Spartans’ aptly named “No Fly Zone” secondary.
The 5-foot-11-inch, 199-pounder employs a hard-nosed approach at the line, jamming receivers to make it difficult for them to get free — a skill that should translate well in the NFL, where such technique is coveted in defending against the league’s pass-oriented offenses.
“I think it will help him tremendously. When you have a press-technique corner, it’s different,” Michigan State secondary coach Harlon Barnett said. “It throws off timing. The ways guys get after the passer now, along with that and a cornerback with good press technique, every inch counts.’’
Dennard’s in-your-face approach is rooted in the confidence he has in himself.
Following a junior season in which he earned a first-team All-Big Ten selection, he made a bold promise.
While sitting in his East Lansing apartment, watching Mississippi State’s Johnthan Banks receive the Jim Thorpe Award, he texted Barnett and the rest of the Spartans’ staff.
“I’m sitting there watching it,” Dennard recalled, “and I texted my coaches and said, ‘I’m gonna get it this year.’
“It’s basically the Heisman for defensive backs. It was my last opportunity and I had the same goals of going out there and achieving it with my teammates.”
Barnett remembered receiving the text and knew it wasn’t a brash promise, instead one Dennard was insistent on following through on.
“He said, ‘Coach me hard,’ ” Barnett said. “He wanted to get coached up and soak up everything he could. It wasn’t just talk. We coached him up and he applied it and he had a phenomenal year.”
Dennard’s confidence and physical approach to the game were fostered during his high school years. For one, he was overlooked during the recruiting process.
Dennard, who grew up in Dry Branch, Ga. — a rural town with a population just above 3,000 — entered the final game of his senior season at Twiggs County without a scholarship offer.
That all changed when he played his final game against Dooly County High and wide receiver Keith Mumphery, who already had committed to the Spartans.
Michigan State assistant coach Dave Warner was there to watch Mumphery when he spotted Dennard.
But being under-recruited isn’t even what motivated Dennard most. In his earlier years, he was always the smallest among his friends and felt he had something to prove.
“[Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio] always talks about never forgetting where you came from,” Dennard said. “That’s the mentality. I have to keep grinding and keep that chip.
“I think it comes from a lot of people think I was under-recruited. But growing up in my neighborhood, I was the smallest of everybody, trying to play basketball and run track. I always had to prove myself to the guys and that’s where it comes from.”
There are concerns that Dennard may have trouble transitioning to a zone-coverage defense after playing in almost strictly man-to-man schemes. But Barnett believes Dennard’s work ethic and ability to learn will help him succeed.
“He can apply what’s being taught in the classroom to the field very easily,” Barnett said. “If he gets taught properly, he will do it to the T and the best of his abilities.”
There are also concerns that Dennard lacks speed. At the Combine, Dennard ran 4.51 in the 40-yard dash, compared with Gilbert’s 4.37.
Just like he has ignored the hype about being the top corner in the draft, he’s ignored the doubters, too.
“I don’t think I have a lack of speed,” he said. “Look at the guys I’ve covered and ran down, obviously that’s not the case. I think people just try to say that to say something and nitpick and challenge my game.”Anthony Gulizia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @gulizia_a.