Dec. 29, 2011
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
TAMPA, Fla. - Once Darqueze Dennard got over the disappointment of not going to the Rose Bowl, it didn't take long to realize that playing Georgia in the Outback Bowl was the next best thing as far as he's concerned.
Michigan State's starting cornerback from Dry Branch, Ga., wasn't recruited out Twiggs County High School by the big state university barely more than 100 miles north in Athens, and he plans to introduce himself to the Bulldogs properly on Monday in Raymond James Stadium.
"Basically being told you're not good enough to play for them gives you a little chip on your shoulder," Dennard said Thursday after practice. "When I found out we were playing Georgia, I was kind of happy and really anxious to show them what they missed out on.
"But I can't make it bigger than it is. I just have to go out and do my job and play hard like I always do."
At least Dennard, a sophomore, isn't torn between an allegiance he had as a child and his new loyalty to MSU. His favorite team growing up was a few hours south of Dry Branch.
"Georgia was the home team so I wouldn't root against them, but I wasn't a fan," Dennard quickly pointed out. "I just liked Florida State's colors better, I guess."
These days, Dennard is 100 percent green and white.
Although more and more schools tried to get in on Dennard after MSU tendered a scholarship offer to him, it was an easy decision.
"I just felt like Michigan State was honest and it felt like a family atmosphere," he said. "I just wanted to be around that. I wasn't scared of change - I just went where my heart was at, and my heart was at Michigan State."
Dennard came to MSU's attention by way of a painstaking process that results in a "Eureka!" moment every so often.
"It was just through an unsolicited highlight tape that was sent," said quarterbacks coach Dave Warner, who was Dennard's chief recruiter. "He's from a real small town in South Georgia and his coach just sent a pile of (films) out.
"We get thousands of them, but it just so happened that I looked at it and it opened my eyes up pretty quick."
Warner called Twiggs coach Dexter Copeland immediately, expecting to hear that Dennard wasn't up to snuff academically or was already committed elsewhere. Neither was the case.
"I was surprised that he was still out there and had good grades," Warner said. "We were the first ones to offer him and after that, a lot of people jumped on the bandwagon, but we're glad we have him.
"There are really no stones left unturned (in Georgia), but we certainly think we've got a gem in him."
An honorable mention All-Big Ten performer, Dennard's one interception of the season came in the win at Ohio State. He has three pass break-ups and 38 tackles in 10 games (he sat out the Indiana and Northwestern games because of an injury).
"It's all about team," he said. "I'm not going to try to be Superman and be everywhere, but I want to do whatever I can to help the team come out with a bowl win."
Dennard is expecting 15-20 members of his family to attend the game. Since he's only provided with a maximum of six tickets under NCAA rules, some of the other Spartans are designating the tickets they can't use for his cheering section.
"My teammates are looking out for me and helping out with tickets, so I really appreciate them," Dennard said.
NOTES & QUOTES: Muhammad Ali was the inspiration and Spartans coach Mark Dantonio, director of football operations Tim Allen and director of executive football operations Brad Lunsford were the keepers of a secret that gave MSU's practice routine some bite on Thursday.
Dantonio has had the Spartans watch videos of the former heavyweight champ prior to some of his big fights throughout the season.
"In the video he talked about doing new things - he had been chopping down trees and wrestling with a whale, and he wrestled and alligator, and he handcuffed lightning and threw thunder in jail," said Dantonio, who had various players repeat the lines.
And so, when the team huddled up at the middle of field in Jesuit High School's Alumni Stadium after practice, he baited the trap.
"The intent was for me to ask Trenton Robinson, `What did you say about wrestling an alligator?'" Dantonio said. "So I pointed over there and said, `There's an alligator.'"
A 7-foot, 115-pound alligator was walking toward the Spartans on the grass practice field next to the stadium when suddenly, a person wearing uniform No. 58 broke ranks.
"Our guy who was a plant, the handler of the alligator, took off running to wrestle it," Dantonio said. "Our guys' mouths just dropped."
The alligator, in turn, added a measure of reality to the staged event when he clamped down on the knee of the trainer, who wasn't freed until an assistant pulled the animal's jaws apart within seconds.
"I'm not going to pretend," said back-up nose tackle Micajah Reynolds, "I fell for it."
Dantonio said the trainer wasn't seriously injured.
"He was not panicked at all," Dantonio said. "Everything went fine."
Along with Dantonio, Reynolds was one of the few players who agreed to handle alligator, a relatively small juvenile, after the excitement settled down.
"It had rough skin, but it was a real fun experience to get to hold it," Reynolds said.
Dennard wanted nothing to do with it.
"Nah, uh-uh, that's not me, I wasn't going to grab it," he said. "It was something different. We always have something fun and surprising at the end, so it was real good to see that."
"Hey," said Dantonio, "we're trying to make life-moments. We wanted to do something they'll remember the rest of their lives and I think they'll remember that one. The whole thing with Ali was, we have to end with a flurry.
"He was truly a great champion, very confident and brought energy to everything he did. He's a great example for our football team and that's why we did it. I didn't know it would be as bizarre as it turned out today, but such is life."