They wanted to know if he could run, if he was fast enough, if the only way he would be able to really cover their flankers was by grabbing them and drawing penalties. What they didn’t think about, however, was if their flanker could get off the line and into his route.
In the first eight minutes of the opening quarter alone, Notre Dame tested Darqueze Dennard at least three times downfield. He beat up their flankers every time. He pressed them at the line and arm-fought them downfield. He’d grab and let go of their jerseys to slow them down. After, he would box them out and condense the room for the throw down the sideline with superlative technique.
On one play, Notre Dame were blunt in their questioning, testing him downfield on a nine route. It was the one route that stressed straight-line speed at the highest level. They had full confidence in beating him too, as it was third-and-10 from their own 15-yard line.
They came out in a 2×2 set, with the No. 1 receiver lined up left of the formation on top of the numbers. Across, in close proximity was Dennard, ready to play bump-and-run coverage.
The receiver jab-released inside and quickly transitioned outside, looking to accelerate down the sideline. Meanwhile, Dennard turned his hips inside and extended his left arm, grabbing the receiver’s inside arm and pulling it back to prevent a burst downfield. He knew that the receiver could only run as fast with his feet as he can move his arms.
Passing the 20-yard line, Dennard kept his left arm extended to the shoulder. He’d keep jabbing it, moving the receiver’s route an inch closer to the sideline every time he covered a blade of grass. Each hit decreased the chances of a completion. The thinking behind it was simple: if the receiver somehow catches the ball, how’s he going to do it inbounds?
At the 30-yard line, Dennard made another smart technical move. While running with the receiver, he kept his eyes on him, making sure that he was in-step (or in-phase), shoulder-to-shoulder. If he was, he could turn his head to the play and locate the ball. Otherwise, he would have to play through the receiver’s hands like he played red-hands as a child.
A third technical move iced the cake: he leaned into the receiver with his outside shoulder to box him out, never giving the receiver room to explode in the air and come down with his feet in bounds, if he hadn’t dropped it to begin with (:21).
Technique trumps speed. Notre Dame found this out the majority of the time in their game against Dennard and Michigan State. Their receivers weren’t able to cleanly get into their routes and downfield, where they could separate from press-man coverage to catch the ball.
In off-coverage, zone or man, Dennard also finds success. He’s disciplined and patient in letting routes develop prior to attacking downhill.
Against Minnesota, he made one of the plays that you see Richard Sherman make on Sundays. Like Sherman sometimes is in Cover 3, he was eight yards off the line with his eyes on the quarterback. This was pure four under, three deep zone coverage — against three verticals, one of the deadliest pass concepts against the three deep zone.
Two of the verticals were to the strong-side where Dennard was covering. One was on top of the numbers, the other outside the near hash. This meant that Dennard had to play both close by running in between them, or as coaches say, “splitting the difference.” It was a simple concept, but one that’s hard to execute for most cornerbacks because they don’t have the patience or discipline to hold the coverage for so long. The good ones, like Sherman, bait the quarterback by playing closer to the outside man while watching the inside one.
Dennard ran closer to the outside receiver than the inside one but kept his eye on the ball. When it finally left the quarterback’s right hand, he left the outside receiver and circled over to the inside one. He leaped over the top of the intended receiver and caught the slightly overthrown pass. If not for his colliding teammate, the rotating middle of the field safety, Dennard would have had his fifth interception on the season (1:27).
During his final season at Michigan State, Dennard physically and technically dominated receivers. He was a premier cover corner and is considered one going into this May’s draft. As offenses learned, they can test Dennard vertically, but their receivers need to get open by using more than their speed, which is neutralized by Dennard’s aforementioned skills.
That’s why he’s going in the first-round.