July 26, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
CHICAGO - Darqueze Dennard surveyed the Boulevard Ballroom inside the Hilton Chicago Hotel as if peering through the bars of his facemask, and chuckled.
"We've got more people in this room than I graduated with," he said. "It's just crazy."
Dry Branch, Ga., where Michigan State's marquee cornerback grew up, is so other-worldly from the rarified atmosphere of the Big Ten Kickoff Media Days, where he was holding court Thursday, he couldn't contain his aw shucks wonderment despite all he's accomplished.
"Coming from where I come from," Dennard said, "a lot of people don't get this opportunity. Going into my senior year, I just had one offer and that was from Middle Tennessee State. I thought I was going to be playing somewhere like that. I never thought I would be at this big stage where I am in the Big Ten."
Incidentally, MTSU pulled back that offer long before Dennard earned modest honorable mention all-state defensive back accolades his senior year.
"It was 2009," Dennard said. "I got depressed throughout the season and I got down on myself. But my family and coaches kept me upright and kept motivating me, telling me, `Your skills will be found.' I kept working hard, and it just happened."
Had Dave Warner, MSU's co-offensive coordinator and Dennard's recruiter, not stumbled across him while scouting another prospect in the final game of the season, he'd probably be wrapping up his collegiate career in the Sun Belt Conference, he mused.
It's reasonable to assume he wouldn't be a preseason All-American at a BCS school or projected to go in an early round of the 2014 NFL draft. He wasn't even on the radar screens of nearby Georgia, Georgia Tech or Florida State, the team he favored while growing up.
"I just say I'm blessed to be in this position and never could have dreamed I'd be here right now," Dennard said.
Don't misunderstand - there's never been a doubt in his mind that he's right where he belongs.
"I was rough around the edges, a raw talent, I'd say," said Dennard, who played in six games and started two as a true freshman. "When I first got (arrived at MSU), I wanted to play and I knew I had the talent to play with anybody if I just worked hard.
"When I got my opportunity, it was wonderful. I was so anxious the first game I started I kept calling my mom and my grandparents the whole week telling them, `I'm ready to go, I'm ready to go.' "
And there's been no indication Dennard will stop any time soon.
He's one of only 11 defensive backs in the country named on the watch lists of the Bednarik (defensive player of the year), Jim Thorpe (nation's top defensive back) and Nagurski (nation's best defender) awards. CBSSports.com ranks Dennard eighth among cornerbacks heading into the NFL draft and Drafttek.com's rating places Dennard among the players projected to be picked in the first three rounds.
Before Dennard, the most accomplished athlete to come out of Twiggs County High School was running back Tony Hollings, who was selected out of Georgia Tech in the second round of the 2003 supplemental draft by the Houston Texans. Hollings played in the NFL for three injury-shortened seasons.
Dennard is poised to eclipse Hollings all because Warner spotting him while playing against Dooly County High and current Spartans wide receiver Keith Mumphery. Dennard's prep coach, Dexter Copeland, told him to play his heart out because college scouts were in the stands that night.
"Keith Mumphery, who's my roommate right now, was already committed (to MSU) and (Warner) was there to watch him," Dennard said. "I played with the same chip on my shoulder that game and I tried to showcase my talents. And then, after the game I ended up getting a call saying they wanted me up there for a visit, and the rest is history."
After the game, Warner couldn't wait to tell head coach Mark Dantonio about his find, a rarity in today's hyper-analyzed recruiting world.
Although Dennard's highlight tape wasn't the best quality, his ability shined through.
"Yeah, I was (astonished)," Dantonio said. "The film was choppy and a little bit bad and you had to sort of look through it. So then you had to go to the next level of what you're evaluating, but we thought he could be a player. And then he finished second in the 100 meters that spring in Georgia (state track meet).
"I think we're always looking for the diamond-in-the-rough. We're always looking for that guy who isn't being heavily recruited, but he's going to come here and be a star. We've had great examples of that happening here."
Once word got out that MSU had offered Dennard a scholarship, Dantonio had to weather interest coming at him from Tulsa, Utah State, Troy, Illinois and South Carolina, which made a hard charge at the end.
"All of the sudden, we weren't getting that call-back (from him) and I was like, `Uh-oh,' " Dantonio said. "But he stayed true to his commitment."
Dennard said there was no need for Dantonio to worry.
"When I first came up here, everybody welcomed me with open arms," Dennard said. "All the players were like my brothers and all treated me well and the coaches were all like my father and good role models. I just fell in love.
"Then, with the campus, it was my first time seeing snow and I thought it would just be wonderful to play here."
Under the tutelage of Michigan State defensive backs coach Harlon Barnett, a former Spartan All-American who played seven NFL seasons, Dennard has polished off the rough edges to become a feared cover-corner. He garnered first-team All-Big Ten honors last season as a junior after tying Johnny Adams for the team lead with three interceptions and finishing tied for second with seven pass-breakups. As a sophomore, Dennard got a measure of revenge with two picks, including one he returned for a key touchdown, in the Outback Bowl win over Georgia.
"He's been a major influence on my career because not too many coaches were an All-American," Dennard said of Barnett. "He's a great role model and motivates us every day to go out and get better. He played the game, and you can just respect that. He's a great role model. Off the field, he's taught me how to be a man and how to do the right thing, and on the field he shows us how to carry ourselves and how to play the game with a passion."
Dantonio, a defensive backfield coach by trade, has also rubbed off on Dennard.
"He's always doing drills with us and it's a very fun thing," Dennard said. "He played at South Carolina so he's been around talent and knows talent. He motivates us, too."
Given his small-town upbringing, it wouldn't have surprised anyone had he left after last season to start earning a living playing professional football. His mother, Lisa Curry, had her hands full with Dennard and his three little sisters, and he was raised primarily by his grandparents, Claude Curry, who worked in a chalk mine, and Peggy, who was employed by YKK zipper company.
However, the chance to fulfill a promise he made to his grandparents by becoming the first member of his family to graduate from college compelled him to return to MSU. He's on schedule to receive his communications degree in the spring.
"A lot of things brought me back," said Dennard. "The team. Everybody knows we had a great team that was a couple plays away from being 11-1. Coach D and the rest of the coaching staff are all great. And when I went home when we got our break in December I told my parents I wanted to stay and get my degree and they all thought that was a good decision."
In a way, Dennard's return is his way of repaying MSU for its faith in him.
"It says a lot about him," Dantonio said. "I'm always talking to our players about trying to become givers, not takers. When you sacrifice, you become a giver. This was Darqueze's opportunity to give. Not just to me and our coaches or Coach Barnett, but to himself and his family with his education, and to his teammates. It's just an example of the priorities he and his family has."