CHICAGO — Football recruiters weren't exactly wearing out the roads to Dry Branch, Ga. (pop. 2,049), to scout Darqueze Dennard.
His lone Division I scholarship offer as his senior season began was from Middle Tennessee State.
Then something occurred to again prove that recruiting sometimes is neither art nor science as much as blind luck.
Michigan State assistant Dave Warner went to a different small town in Georgia to watch the final high school game of wide receiver Keith Mumphery, who already was committed to MSU.
Warner soon found himself intently evaluating the player shadowing Mumphery. It was Dennard.
The next day came a phone call asking him to visit Michigan State. Soon after, MSU coach Mark Dantonio offered a scholarship.
“God's work,” Dennard said.
Four years later, he is a returning first-team All-Big Ten cornerback, a preseason All-American and a strong candidate to join his cousin — former Nebraska cornerback Alfonzo Dennard — in the NFL next year.
While holding court Thursday in a Hilton Chicago banquet room at Big Ten media days, Dennard shook his head while considering his journey to the big time from little ol' Dry Branch.
“Man, there are more people in this room than I graduated with,” he said. “I never dreamed I'd get a chance to play in the Big Ten.”
Nor did the player, whose teammates used to call him “Country,” imagine he would be dressed in suit and tie and representing his school at the Big Ten's premier publicity event.
“I was rough around the edges when I first arrived,” Dennard said.
Michigan State linebacker Max Bullough agreed, calling him shy, quiet and often out of his element.
“But Darqueze has changed a lot,” said Bullough, another All-Big Ten pick. “He's got an unbelievable amount better at football and socially, too. He's more open. He's able to handle the media.
“He's an unbelievable athlete. He'll never cause trouble. He's never out at night or has an issue. He is there to work, do his job and win football games.”
One of Dennard's chores recently has been to stay in touch with cousin Alfonzo, who has been in Lincoln dealing with a DUI arrest, which violated his probation from a previous scuffle with Lincoln police.
“We've been texting and talking back and forth,” Darqueze said. “I'm telling him to keep his head up and keep praying and he'll get through it. He's staying positive.”
Darqueze also is picking Alfonzo's brain for tips on preparing to play in the NFL. Veteran evaluator Gil Brandt of NFL.com has the 5-foot-11 197-pounder as his No. 2 cornerback available in the 2014 draft behind TCU's Jason Verrett.
“I've talked to Alfonzo about it and with guys from Michigan State who have made it,” Dennard said. “Basically, they say to work hard and don't think too far ahead.
“Those guys have told me I've got the talent to play at that level. Just play hard and don't change nothing.”
Another place Dennard can go for NFL advice is to his position coach, Harlon Barnett, who was an All-American at Michigan State in 1989 and went on to a seven-year pro career with Cleveland, New England and Minnesota.
“Not too many coaches were All-Americans,” Dennard said. “Coach B has been a great influence on me with all the values he has instilled.”
Michigan State fell far short of expectations last season, going 7-6 overall and 3-5 in Big Ten games.
But five of those six losses were by four points or less. One, a 28-24 setback to Nebraska, came after Dennard's second-half interception return of nearly 100 yards for a touchdown that would have given MSU a 17-point lead had it not been nullified by penalty.
“Those close losses affected our team,” Dennard said. “We've got an edge now, and it was last year's season that brought it on.
“We were just a couple of plays away from being in the Big Ten championship game. So the seniors are putting it on our backs to have a great year. We don't like the way things went last year.”
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