March 12, 2014
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist| @GrinzOnGreen
EAST LANSING, Mich. - That chip on Denicos Allen's shoulder seems a lot lighter than when he arrived at Michigan State as an undersized linebacker in 2009. Or maybe, he's just gotten stronger from repeatedly proving people wrong over the last five years.
On Tuesday, Allen was back at making his case for why he's a good football player worthy of consideration, this time in front of 50 representatives of NFL teams at MSU's annual Pro Day.
Despite leading the nation's No. 2 defense with 98 tackles, the Spartan All-American wasn't invited to last month's prestigious NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, so he made the most of his opportunities in the familiar confines of the Duffy Daugherty Building indoor practice facility.
"Especially with not being invited to the combine, I felt like there was a lot of pressure here and this was a big stage for me," Allen said after completing a battery of tests and drills. "I showed what I can do and I'll take it from there.
"Being one of the top tacklers on the No. 1 defense in the nation (prior to bowl season), and not being invited to the combine or an all-star game was kind of personal, but it motivated me. I came in here with full motivation and ready to get after it."
The 5-foot-11, 225-pound Allen blamed his physical stature for getting overlooked, but it's not unlike what he faced when Ohio State declined to offer him a scholarship even though he starred just down the road at Hamilton (Ohio) High School.
"I wouldn't say this is my comfort zone, but this is just something you always have in the back of your head that you figure is going to affect something at the end of the day," Allen said. "I knew that my size was going to be a problem coming out of college, so I just prepared myself for it and did what I could on the field to show them I can make plays no matter my size."
Allen made one of Michigan State's biggest stops in decades with a fourth-down tackle against Braxton Miller of the Buckeyes to help secure the 34-24 victory that sent the Spartans to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1988. His seven tackles, including six solos, in the subsequent 24-20 win against Stanford landed Allen on the SI.com and NFL.com all-bowl teams.
Allen pointed to Seattle Seahawks linebacker and former seventh-round draft choice Malcolm Smith (6-0, 226) as similar-sized player having success in the NFL.
"He's exactly my type and he won the Super Bowl MVP," Allen said in reference to Smith's performance in the 43-8 drubbing of Denver in Super Bowl XLVIII. "That just speaks volumes right there. Size really doesn't matter. If you're a playmaker, you're a playmaker. I've been saying that for the longest time and to have somebody my size actually do it on a stage like that sets a perfect example."
While Allen may have been the victim of NFL stereotyping, Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin told MSU head coach Mark Dantonio the league readily acknowledges there's a place in the league for such players.
"Sometimes people get hung up on the measurables," Dantonio said. "He's not 6-foot-1, 225 pounds, but Coach Tomlin just said it. There's a whole bunch of guys in the NFL playing linebacker and they look like the guys they're tackling - they look like running backs.
"That's what (Allen) looks like. He looks like a tailback, and they're tackling guys like that. I think that's a great correlation. You're finding guys who have to be able to change direction on a dime, you've got to be able to run and you've got to be able to hit with power, and that's what Denicos can do. The only reason he flew under the radar is he's not as tall as they'd like him to be, but he's an extremely productive player."
Allen thought he performed well for the scouts.
"I've been reading a lot of stuff about how my pass-dropping (into coverage) wasn't all that good and my catching wasn't good, but I feel like I showed I can catch the ball and I can get to my zone pretty fast," he said. "I feel like I can play outside linebacker (in the NFL) and if I had to I'd play safety. I'll do whatever I have to do to get a spot on the team.
"That's pretty much the case."
Fifteen MSU seniors, and two former Spartans, took part in Pro Day. All-American cornerback Darqueze Dennard, a former unheralded two-star recruit out of Twiggs County (Ga.) High School who is projected as a first-round draft pick, headlined the eight-hour event.
Dennard turned heads with an 11-foot, 2-inch standing broad jump which was farther than any recorded by a cornerback at the NFL Combine and equaled the best overall effort there.
"I'm enjoying this process and I'm trying to have fun with it," said Dennard. "I'm truly a blessed individual to be put where I'm at. A lot of guys dream they can be here and a lot of guys wish they could be here, and I'm thankful for all the opportunities I have.
"Playing here definitely prepared me because Michigan State runs their program just like an NFL team. The Michigan State staff prepared me and the rest of my senior class for the NFL, so it's pretty much a walk in the park."
Dennard said he barely thinks about the lucrative contract he will almost certainly be offered since winning the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back.
"All I think about is being the best player I can be," he said. "I'm a competitor. I want to be the best player on the team, I want to be the best cornerback. That alone is what drives me, not the money."
Dantonio said he envisioned Dennard being a "10-year player" in the NFL.
No Spartans' stock may have jumped higher than that of wide receiver Bennie Fowler, who had run the 40-yard dash in 4.52 seconds at the Combine.
"I feel like I did really well," Fowler said. "I showed I wasn't just a speed guy, routes looked good, hands looked good, no body catches, so I feel good about my performance."
Fowler was unofficially timed with an impressive 4.38.
Middle linebacker Max Bullough said he has put the suspension that cost him an appearance in the Rose Bowl behind him, and he and MSU are moving on.
"I'm just looking forward to being a pro and doing the thing I've loved to do since I was a kid at the highest level," he said. "My standing regarding Michigan State is great. I love all my teammates and they love me, same with the coaching staff."
Dantonio backed Bullough 100 percent.
"Max Bullough belongs at Michigan State," Dantonio said. "He's a Spartan and I love him. He's a football player and a very controlling factor on the field. I think (NFL) people understand that and will look at that aspect."
Andrew Maxwell, who lost the No. 1 quarterback job to Connor Cook in the second game of last season after making 14 consecutive starts, took another step toward fulfilling a boyhood dream. He's trying to follow the example of Minnesota Vikings and former Southern California quarterback Matt Cassel, who is the only known quarterback to start an NFL game without ever starting in college.
"It's clearly been shown it can be done," Maxwell said. "The good news is I've got 14 games on tape, so it's not like one workout that teams know about me. And, I think it's good tape. It's just (a matter) of showing I can play through adversity, make good situations out of bad situations, be consistent with my fundamentals from game to game and week to week. Those are the things I've been working on.
"It's been a dream of mine since I can remember. What cooler job is there than to get to play football for a living?"
Strong safety Isaiah Lewis said he felt like he was in "a zone" during his Pro Day workout, and ready to play in the NFL regardless of what route takes him there.
"Everybody wants to go in the first round, and I would tell you I want to go first round," he said. "But, things are going to work out how they work out. You can't really listen to the mock drafts, and the rankings and all that kind of stuff, because at the end of the day, the coaches make the decisions on when they want you and what team wants you.
"And if a team wants you, you're most likely the guy they need to fit in that system, so wherever I go, I'm still going to work like I didn't get drafted. Whatever team gets me is going to have a worker on their hands."
Under Dantonio, the Spartans have earned a reputation for producing NFL-ready players.
"It's rewarding because the greatest thing you hear is we've got good people," Dantonio said. "I've continually said that we have good players and great coaches, but we've won here, and we've won big here, because of chemistry.
"That truly exists here. I was just talking to Coach Tomlin, and he knows all of our guys. There's a reason they know them and I think that speaks volumes of the program. The message here is you better overachieve if you come here. I don't care what level of player you are. There's no entitlement here. We're going to treat all our guys the same and make them earn their way to the top."