Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard is a reminder that talented players still are overlooked.
On the eve of signing day, Dennard was in Oklahoma City Tuesday night to pick up the Jim Thorpe Award, presented to college football's top defensive back.
Dennard is an amazing story. He wasn't offered a scholarship until after his final game his senior year at Twiggs County (Ga.) High School.
“It blows me away sometimes,” Dennard said. “You can never measure a guy's heart, what motivates him. Coach (Mark) Dantonio has believed in a lot of guys like that, looking under rocks. A lot of them have gone to play in the NFL.”
Listed at 5-foot-11, 197 pounds, Dennard is projected to be a mid-first-round pick in the upcoming NFL Draft. A three-year starter for the Spartans and a two-time All-Big Ten selection, Dennard compiled 167 career tackles and 30 passes defended, including 10 interceptions.
“I'm really blessed, grateful and thankful for all the opportunities I've received,” Dennard said. “Seeing this doorway open, I'm really anxious to see how I will fit in at the next level. The NFL has so many great players.”
When Dennard's mother, Mona Lisa Curry, moved to Macon, Ga., her son stayed behind in Dry Branch, Ga. He lived with his grandparents. His grandfather, Claude, worked the chalk mines. His grandmother, Peggy, worked several years at the local zipper factory.
“Darqueze was very frustrated nobody was looking at him,” Curry said. “When his (high school) coach told him a Michigan State coach was going to be at his final game, he told Darqueze this probably was his last chance. He played a great game. Looking back, winning the Jim Thorpe Award, wow!”
Michigan State assistant Dave Warner accidentally stumbled onto Dennard. Warner was impressed after watching Dennard cover Vienna's Keith Mumphery, a Spartan commitment.
Dantonio requested tape from Dennard's high school coach. Michigan State's staff agreed the kid from Dry Branch, a town with only a blinking yellow light, had tremendous upside.
“I hope this is an example for young kids where I grew up,” Dennard said. “A lot of them have nothing. Some become felons. They do negative things to get money. Hopefully I'm showing kids there are other routes you can take.”
This past season, Dennard helped lead the Spartans to their first Rose Bowl win in 16 years. After ending Ohio State's 24-game winning streak in the Big Ten Championship Game, Michigan State defeated Stanford 24-20. The Spartans finished 13-1.
Dennard is projected to graduate with a degree in communications. He will be the first member of his family to earn a college degree.
“I don't know what would have happened if that Michigan State coach hadn't been there,” Curry said. “He was definitely going to school, possibly a junior college. We were focused on getting a degree more than anything.”
Middle Tennessee State was the only school to show interest in Dennard his senior year but backed off. After Michigan State offered, other schools jumped on board. The kid in a graduating class of 30 suddenly was a hot commodity seven weeks before national signing day.
“This is all a dream,” Dennard said. “If Michigan State hadn't come along I'd probably be a barber or something. I wouldn't have played football. Who knows? This is truly a blessing. Every morning I wake up and thank God I got the opportunity.”