Darren Page, DLD Lead Scout
The term “riser” as a means to describe the week to week performance of prospects is a fallacy, as draft grades aren’t that reactive short-term. On the other hand, elevating yourself in the eyes of evaluators over the course of a season is entirely possible. Every year prospects grow in leaps and bounds from their junior campaign to their senior campaign. This season, not many prospects fit that bill better than Michigan State’s Darqueze Dennard.
Dennard put in the type of season that has him looking like a lock for the first round. His physicality, awareness, and ball skills enabled Spartan defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi to leave him on an island on a majority of plays. Dennard thrived in the role.
Michigan State’s worst showing on the season defensively came in mid-October in a home showing against Indiana. The Hoosiers passing game featured talented junior receiver Cody Latimer, who has recently declared for the 2014 NFL Draft. After bursting onto the stat sheet as a sophomore, Latimer topped those numbers in 2013 by racking up over 1,000 yards and bringing down 9 touchdowns.
The Dennard/Latimer matchup is certainly one worth looking back on. Latimer topped 100 yards previous three outings, including two touchdowns. On the other hand, Dennard was fresh off a dominant showing in Iowa City in which he brought down two interceptions.
Size is where Latimer has the upper hand on Dennard. His 6’3” 215 lb. frame by far tops the 5’10” 197 lb. frame of Dennard. Coming into this game, that’s something Latimer needed to use to combat the relentless hand fighting of Darqueze Dennard. The receivers who tend to give Dennard the most trouble are ones that are quick in and out of breaks to separate at the top of routes. Latimer looked too stiff of a mover in his two previous showings to be that type. Instead, he’s fighting fire with fire in terms of style of play. That’s what made this showdown so intriguing coming into it.
The entire first quarter went without incident. In only a few matchups on the first drive, Dennard manned up Latimer without safety help and, Indiana quarterback Nate Sudfeld threw elsewhere. Dennard then flipped over to the other side, the defense’s left to finish out the quarter.
Indiana gets Latimer involved in the second quarter with two quick completions, one on a wide receiver screen and another on a five yard out, both with Dennard still on the other side of the field. After Indiana makes a quarterback switch and finds Latimer in a Cover 2 hole for a bigger gain, Narduzzi flips Dennard back over the top of him in the red zone.
Indiana has the third down play dialed up for Latimer on a back shoulder throw. This puts him in position to use his size advantage and catch radius to beat Dennard.
Dennard tries to open his hips and take outside leverage at the line of scrimmage. His safety help on the inside allows him to play Latimer this way.
Latimer stays on the outside shoulder and bodies Dennard. He combats contact by extending his own hands without pushing off. Once the ball is released, Latimer is in position to flip open his hips and box out Dennard.
As a well-placed ball comes in, Latimer does just that. His usage of his frame to body a physical cornerback like Dennard is impressive. Being able to extend for the football away from his body and make contested catches is also something that Latimer shows on a consistent basis, including this play.
The Hoosiers try to go back to the Latimer well in the third quarter. Latimer separates from Dennard well out of his break on a slant route, a staple of the Indiana offense. A terrible throw from Tre Roberson makes it all for naught, but the short-area quickness Latimer flashes on the play is a plus.
Once Dennard moves back over the opposite side, the Hoosiers call Latimer’s number a few more times. After limited YAC on a wide receiver screen, Latimer makes a fine adjustment on a well-placed back shoulder throw to move the sticks.
Early in the fourth quarter with the Hoosiers chasing a lead, Narduzzi mixes it up with a different look from Dennard.
The Spartans bring Dennard on a cornerback blitz from the outside and roll a safety over top of Latimer. The multiplicity of Pat Narduzzi’s scheme is a bonus to the experience Dennard will already have as a prospect.
When Indiana’s offensive line and back mishandle blitz pickup, Dennard gets a free run at the quarterback.
Dennard closes quickly to put a hit on the quarterback as he throws, forcing a high throw over the head of Cody Latimer. Dennard’s closing speed is an underappreciated part of his game. He won’t set a record for fastest 40 time at the combine, but his playing speed will not be a concern.
Later in the fourth quarter the Hoosiers try to find Latimer over the top. He runs a fly route, splitting Dennard and safety Kurtis Drummond in a Cover 3 look. The ball is well over thrown, giving Latimer no shot at making the play. The issue is that Cody Latimer showed a lack of acceleration in route to win over the top. The safety was easily able to roll over the top of the route after recognizing the route.
On third and 9 shortly after, quarterback Tre Roberson looks Latimer’s way once again. With Dennard on the opposite side, Latimer tries to play off press coverage and run a square in at the sticks. He gets inside the cornerback but is too easily rerouted at the line of scrimmage. He then fails to separate at the break of his route, with the cornerback getting physical. Even though Roberson’s ball is deflected by an underneath linebacker, Latimer was blanketed and would have struggled to reel the ball in. Size and strength are Cody Latimer’s better traits, but his usage of them is inconsistent and leads to a lack of separation.
Though it was the end of Dennard/Latimer matchups, another fourth quarter play showcased the versatility and awareness of Darqueze Dennard
Indiana runs an Air Raid staple: four verticals. Narduzzi has the perfect call for it with Cover 3 over the top and six man pressure. It calls for Darqueze Dennard to get depth right away but split the two receivers in his deep third zone in order to play the ball thrown to the outside or on the hash.
Dennard drives on the throw to the seam, with the free safety unable to get there. The ball is somewhat underthrown, but Dennard takes a perfect angle to get underneath the receiver and play the football.
Darqueze Dennard then plays the ball just in time to bat it away and save a touchdown. His route recognition, footwork in deep zones, and ability to drive on the football were all on display from the talented cornerback here.
Shortly after the Hoosiers go back to Latimer on a slant route. He handles press coverage more effectively this time, clearing space working to the inside and plucking the ball. With a head of steam he breaks an arm tackle and falls forward for tough yardage after the catch.
Darqueze Dennard and Cody Latimer didn’t square off throughout this game, but showed something when they did.
After their goal line showdown, it’s clear that even though Dennard’s hands and ability to get physical are pluses, his lack of size isn’t ideal for his style. On the other hand, he does a consistent job leveraging routes in coverage when rolled up on the line of scrimmage. Dennard’s athleticism came through for him throughout, blanketing multiple deep routes with long speed when not matched up with Latimer. Awareness in coverage, ball skills, and coverage instincts are all pros to the play of Darqueze Dennard as well.
For Cody Latimer it was a mixed performance that didn’t equal up to previous performances in terms of production. His size and strength to compete with physical cornerbacks will always be a plus. His struggles to separate out of his route breaks with stiff hips and a lack of short-area quickness are a concern that showed through in this one. Latimer has the build of an NFL receiver, but his athleticism might not match up to what teams are looking for. How he times in combine drills may be of utmost importance to him.
All screen shots taken from Big Ten Network to Go