NFL draft profile: Physical Michigan State cornerback plays with chip on shoulder

02/06/2014 8:25 AM

02/06/2014 8:25 AM

The best cornerback in the nation was a two-star recruit out of a small Georgia high school, a man who grew up in the heart of SEC country but was not only overlooked by his homestate schools, but every BCS program in the South, too.

So yes, you'll have to forgive Michigan State senior Darqueze Dennard — who chose the Spartans over offers from Utah State and Middle Tennessee State — if he plays with a chip on his shoulder.

“You can probably call interference on every single play he's in,” said OptimumScouting.com NFL draft analyst Jared Counterman. “Receivers don't play him and not have bruises.”

Dennard's physical style has served him well over the last four years, as the 5-foot-11, 197-pounder — who attended Twiggs County High School in Dry Branch, Ga. — grew into a three-year starter who finished his senior season with 62 tackles, 10 pass breakups and four interceptions and won the 2013 Jim Thorpe Award as the nation's best defensive back.

“I was watching the tape and getting frustrated, because I was like 'This guy is committing penalties right and left and they're not getting called,'” Counterman said. “He's just mugging these receivers.

“Then I found out he makes it a point to talk to refs before games and establish what he can and can't do. You just don’t see that from 21- or 22-year-olds. He pushes the line and physically dominates.”

Counterman said Dennard's on-field diligence is matched by his intangibles off the field, as he will be the first member of his family to go to college and a lead-by-example type. However, he was the one who coined the “No Fly Zone” nickname that Michigan State's secondary gave itself before the season and proceeded to back up, as they allowed a miniscule 165.6 passing yards per game, the third-best mark in the nation.

Dennard obviously contributed to that effort with his presence. Counterman said Michigan State used him primarily on the short side of the field, also known as the boundary, which is a common tactic that college coaches use with elite corners. The boundary corner has less space to deal with than the field corner, which only enhances a gifted cover corner's ability to stick with a receiver.

Alabama coach Nick Saban did the same last season with Dee Milliner, who was drafted ninth overall in April's NFL Draft.

“MSU's safeties said when they were in the boundary, passes didn't get thrown their way because they were on Darqueze's side,” Counterman said.

Counterman said Dennard is also a willing tackler, which means he also projects as a nickel corner who can conceivably play inside against slot receivers, if needed, and that his strengths make him an ideal fit for a press-man team like the Seahawks or Chiefs.

“He can be Aqib Talib-ish in a way,” Counterman said, referring to the New England star, who is regarded as one of the NFL's best corners. “Talib is a guy who loves to have his hands on the receiver, someone who can watch the quarterback and feel the wide receiver move with his hands."

But like all prospects, Dennard has some question marks. For one, Counterman said teams will be keeping a close eye on his 40-yard dash time at the combine. While teammates claim Dennard is

one of the Spartans' fastest players

, Counterman said there is a question about his long speed and overall ceiling because he's a good, but not elite, athlete.

“I don't see him jumping over 40 inches or running a sub-4.5,” Counterman said. “That's probably why I won't project him to go top 15, because teams in top 15 are looking to hit a home run with that crazy athlete.”

Dennard has also had injury issues. He missed five games in 2010 with a knee injury and three games in 2011 because of a concussion and left ankle injury. He also missed spring practice in 2012 with a shoulder injury and spring practice in 2013 while recovering from sports hernia surgery.

These, perhaps, are the reasons why ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. — released his first mock draft on Wednesday — currently has Dennard falling to the Cincinnati Bengals at No. 24, one spot after the Chiefs make their first-round pick.

But if it plays out that way, Counterman — who said is not freaked out by Dennard's injury history because star players regularly sit out spring practice — believes he could easily make teams in the top 15 pay for passing on him.

“He's smooth and really flip his hips ― he's got lightning hips and that really helps,” Counterman said. “Ohio State, they've got a really fluid receiver in Devin Smith, and if you watch that game, Dennard was in his hip pocket the whole game. He never lost him.”

Indeed. Against Michigan State, the 6-foot-1, 198-pound Smith ― who caught 44 passes for 660 yards and eight touchdowns this season ― only caught one pass for 11 yards.

That's just one of many reasons ― along with his unique combination of aggressiveness, agility and intangibles ― Counterman is willing to overlook whatever warts teams might find in Michigan State's top corner.

After all, if Dennard's rise from overlooked recruit to college stardom shows anything, it's that he probably plays his best when he has plenty to prove.

“How much better he will get? I don't know, probably not a whole lot better,” Counterman said. “But he's really good right now. A day one impact (guy).

“He's gonna be a good corner in the NFL for a long time.”

Here's a highlight tape of Dennard: