Aug. 17, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - You know the Friedrich Nietzsche line about whatever doesn't kill us makes us stronger?
He had to have been talking about brothers, right?
Or at least Michigan State cornerbacks separated by birth but so closely related by position they've become a single entity heading into the college football season.
With three interceptions for 141 yards, three sacks for minus-32 yards, six pass breakups and 51 tackles in 2011, Adams is the favored son, so to speak. The fifth-year senior is on the watch lists for three national awards: Bednarik (defensive player of the year), Thorpe (top defensive back) and Nagurski (top defensive player).
But in the spirit of a fierce sibling rivalry, Dennard, a junior who had three interceptions for 38 yards including two in the Outback Bowl win over Georgia, 42 tackles and three PBUs, isn't conceding the spotlight.
"I'd say we're friendly competitors and we're supportive of each other," Dennard said Friday after practice. "We always help each other and give each other tips. Pretty much, I feel like Johnny is my brother. He looks out for me and I look out for him. If you see him, you'll probably see me not too far behind.
"But I'd also say we compete like brothers. If he goes and makes an interception I'm happy for him, but at the same time I tell myself to go get two. It just feels good to have him pushing me and I'm just really excited to play beside him."
Adams spared Dennard from having to experience separation anxiety this past offseason when he put aside the notion of leaving MSU early for the NFL draft.
"I feel like he could have left early and been a high draft pick," Dennard said. "When he texted me and told me he was coming back, I was real excited."
Trenton Robinson's departure left a big hole at free safety defensive backfield coach Harlon Barnett is still working toward filling with red-shirt junior Jairus Jones, red-shirt sophomore Kurtis Drummond, red-shirt freshman RJ Williamson and true freshman Demetrious Cox, but the Spartan secondary hasn't been this experienced, talented and deep in recent memory - maybe ever.
Fifth-year senior Mitchell White can fill in for Adams or Dennard without missing a beat, according to Barnett.
"Johnny and Quez are good football players and so it Mitchell," Barnett said. "There's a reason Johnny and Quez are above Mitchell, but I wouldn't say there's a significant dropoff when Mitchell goes in. We're not up in the booth shaking like, `Oh no, Mitchell's in the game.' He can do the job."
Meantime, junior Isaiah Lewis is a stalwart at strong safety and newcomers like Cox, Jermaine Edmondson and Ezra Robinson, who's battling redshirt freshman Trae Waynes for the fourth cornerback spot, have really impressed Dennard so far.
"My game has progressed a lot since coming in as a true freshman when I felt like I was blind and pretty much didn't know what to do, to knowing the scheme and how to understand the scheme and what other people are doing beside me," he said. "I feel like I'm kind of a veteran back there, but at the same time kind of young because of Johnny.
"I see (the young players) probably ahead of me (at the same point). They're making a lot of plays and doing a lot more stuff than I did as a freshman."
Notes & Quotes: Dennard, a native of Dry Branch, Ga., took a lot of heat back home for his role in MSU's 33-30, come-from-behind, triple-overtime victory against the Bulldogs in the Outback Bowl. His 38-yard interception return for a touchdown cut Georgia's lead to 16-14 in the third quarter.
"I did get a lot of reaction," he said. "Friends and family were calling me, saying all the things I did and why did you do that to our team. I was trying to explain, it wasn't just me."
It stands to reason that drop off in the passing game is being anticipated because Kirk Cousins, the winningest quarterback in MSU history, has graduated and red-shirt junior Andrew Maxwell has appeared in exactly nine games.
However, if the Spartans aren't as effective in the air, it won't be because they have to dial back the offense to facilitate their new starter. Quarterbacks coach Dave Warner expects Maxwell to pick up where Cousins left off.
"Andrew picked up our offense better than anyone we've ever had," Warner said of Maxwell's indoctrination to the schemes. "He made a lot of mistakes like everybody did, but he did a great job of understanding it. He was in a situation where he didn't have to learn real quick and was thrown into the fire.
"I just remember his first day here in the summertime in July when the freshmen first showed up, that they had 7-on-7 skellies out there, and one guy came in and told me that on (Maxwell's) first play he threw a touchdown pass. He knew exactly what the concept was and knew exactly what he was going against coverage-wise. That made me feel good."
Four summers and countless hours of film study and practice later, Maxwell is doing everything in the offense that Cousins did.
"I expect Andrew to go into this season where Kirk Cousins went into 2011," Warner said. "And that with two years of starting under his belt with Kirk. Andrew's been through those same years, and though he wasn't on the field, he's learned through Kirk's great play and great decisions, and the mistakes as well.
"We anticipate him to step in there and take the offense to the next level, hopefully."
Junior defensive end William Gholston's photograph appears twice in the newly released Sports Illustrated college football preview issue, on pages 4 and 96.
"I think somebody tweeted it to me," Gholston said. "So yeah, I did see it, but I really have no time to think about it. We had a two-a-day today and I had to go to sleep early. So, I'm just kind of focused on the season, focused on Boise (State), focused on practice and focused on getting better.
"You can really see that we're getting better day in and day out from watching film. I want (the defense) to be better that last year. I want to finish No. 1 in every category, if that's possible."