When Missouri cornerbacks coach Cornell Ford laid eyes on Kenya Dennis, it was love at first sight.
Building the Tigers’ 2014 recruiting class, Ford coveted a big cornerback. Dennis, who played the last two seasons at Hinds Community College in Mississippi fit the bill.
“I was very impressed,” Ford said. “His size, when he walked in the door, I was like, ‘Holy smoke. Look at this guy.’ Honestly, I wasn’t sure if he was going to play corner, but I knew, as a defensive back, to have that kind of size in your secondary is a plus.”
Dennis always believed he was an NCAA Division I athlete, but — playing at Class 2A Leland (Miss.) High School with a graduating class of 89 students — no offers came from big-time programs.
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Mississippi State showed interest and even attended a Cubs practice, but an offer never materialized despite a senior season that saw nine interceptions and 76 tackles, a high number for a defensive back.
“I was pretty frustrated with it, because I knew I was a pretty good athlete and I felt like I deserved to be on a Division I roster,” Dennis said. “It was another form of motivation for me.”
Dennis said most of his offers came from junior colleges or Division II programs like Mississippi Valley State, which produced NFL Hall of Famers Deacon Jones and Jerry Rice.
Ultimately, Dennis wound up at Hinds, where he continued to chase that Division I dream.
As a sophomore last season, Dennis emerged as an honorable mention junior college All-American and finally started garnering attention.
He turned down scholarship offers from Auburn, Arkansas and Southern Mississippi to join Ford’s position group with the Tigers.
Dennis actually preferred to stay in Mississippi, but “Mizzou was the place. They had a lot of defensive backs leaving, so I chose to come here,” he said.
Enrolling for the spring 2014 semester allowed Dennis to get a jump start on his career and earn a spot as a backup on the Tigers’ depth chart.
Of course, he wound up starting Saturday against South Dakota State in front of 60,589 — roughly 15 times larger than any crowd for a game he’d played in during high school or junior college.
“It was amazing, just a great feeling for me,” Dennis said. “I’ve never experienced anything like that in my life before. … It really hasn’t even hit me yet, but I’m blessed. God blessed me with the chance to play at an SEC school. I just took the chance and ran with it.”
Dennis also played well, according to Ford and coach Gary Pinkel. He finished with two tackles, including a 1/2 sack with senior defensive end Markus Golden
“He made some plays,” Ford said. “He’s still got a lot of room for improvement, but I think he’s on the right track. He’s kind of what we thought he would be.”
Dennis, at 6 feet and 195 pounds, brings size to a secondary that needed it.
“I knew, losing (Rams cornerback and Fort Osage graduate) E.J. (Gaines), that we were going to need a bigger guy, because I also knew what we had coming back,” Ford said. “All of our other guys aren’t quite as tall or as strong or as physical, so we needed a guy with that kind of presence on the defense at the corner position. … (Dennis) is probably our most physical guy.”
It’s little wonder why Ford was enamored from the start.