Michigan State CB Darqueze Dennard has come from being a two-star recruit with scholarship offers from Middle Tennessee and Utah State (with Michigan State only coming in at the last minute) to a potential top-15 pick in the NFL Draft. His physical play in both pass coverage and run support is what has many NFL scouts drooling.
"It's been a long journey but it all worked out," Dennard said in an interview with Mike Mayock at the Michigan State pro day. "I had some good people that helped me along the way. I'm blessed."
The 2013 Thorpe award winner was a captain of the most dominant defense in college football last season, which earned the nickname "No Fly Zone" after shutting down opposing passers week after week. Even when Dennard does give up a reception, his willingness to fight for the ball and wrestle it away from an opponent's hands is one skill that sets him apart.
"He plays cover four and press corner and it's pretty much man to man the whole game," Michigan State teammate Max Bullough said. "Darqueze had an outstanding year. He can guard anybody whether they're big, small, fast, long - he's proven it. His ability to lock down any type of receiver is what's going to help him at the next level."
In addition to playing one-on-one man coverage, Dennard has shown a strong ability to blitz from his corner position - something that many of the other top corners in this year's class were rarely asked to do. He recorded five quarterback hurries and 3.5 tackles for loss in 2013. This ability, combined with the aforementioned toughness in the run game, makes Dennard an ideal fit for a nickel cornerback position, at least early in his career, if a team already has two established corners on the outside.
"I think for me, if he runs well, Dennard is a top-15 pick," Mayock said before the NFL Combine. "He's my favorite corner in the draft. I'd like to see him run well."
Dennard ran a 4.51 40-yard dash at the combine, which is a bit slower than that of the other top projected corners in the draft. There are concerns about his ability to cover a speedy receiver on vertical routes at the next level. He was not exploited in this area of his game much in college, but with more precise quarterbacks with more arm strength in the NFL it might be a cause for concern.
The Bills are probably not looking to draft a cornerback with the #9 overall pick in the NFL Draft, and his value is likely somewhere in the middle of round one. The Spartan has the skill set to fit into any scheme, and his lack of straight-line speed would be negated by the Bills defensive line's ability to pressure the quarterback (three players with 10 sacks in 2013). New defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz is known for relying on getting pressure with four guys, meaning safety help on deep routes would be available for Dennard if needed.
"I'm going to compete every play, I'm going to play hard," Dennard said about what teams can expect from him. "I'm also a guy that's not afraid to tackle. I'm going to come up and put my nose in there. I'm also a smart guy, and you don't have to worry about me off the field."