You never really know what you’ve got until it’s gone – even if it was a preseason All-American heading into the 2011 college football season.
Alfonzo Dennard was always supposed to be an integral part of the Nebraska Cornhuskers defense. Even if the squad hadn’t lost guys to the NFL Draft, it was he who had the talent, athleticism and understanding of the game to spearhead a defense that Carl Pelini, at one point, thought would be one of the best he’d ever seen.
Then disaster struck.
Dennard went down with an injury before the year could even commence and suddenly the Huskers entire defense looked bare – ripe to be taken advantage of by opposing defenses. And that’s precisely what ended up happening. While the defense struggled to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks and bottle up the running attacks of teams like the Fresno State Bulldogs and Washington Huskies to no avail, exposing the secondary became a hobby for every rival quarterback.
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Ciante Evans, bless his heart, got burned by a wide receiver at least three times per game – every game.
The goal was to bring Dennard back slowly, and that’s precisely what Nebraska did. He returned to action a week before the Huskers were due to face off against the Wisconsin Badgers, but he just wasn’t right. And then in that massacre of an outing against the Badgers, even though his presence certainly kept quarterback Russell Wilson lobbing the pigskin to areas of the field that didn’t feature Dennard, he still clearly wasn’t the player of old.
"Every single time I went out there, I was thinking about my quad," he told ESPN.com in a recent interview. "I wasn't even focused on my plays and stuff like that, because I was scared of being injured again."
The light went on during Nebraska’s historic victory over the Ohio State Buckeyes. Many players, looking back, consider that the outing when the switch was flipped for this team – but that game in particular was a turning point for Dennard. It was when he finally felt like himself again.
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A bye week and massacre of the Minnesota Gophers later, Dennard got the chance to prove it. Squaring off against a hot Michigan State Spartans team with momentum on its side and everything to play for, the Huskers’ best cornerback took responsibility for rival wide receiver, B.J. Cunningham.
Coming into the game, Cunningham had caught at least one pass in each of his 41 prior showings. Dennard ended that streak – with emphasis. His squad proceeded to rout the Spartans 24-3. It was a brilliant effort by all involved, but Dennard in particular.
"In the Michigan State game, I felt like I kind of picked up where I left off last year," he said.
For what it’s worth, the coaching staff sees the development. Realizing that Dennard would need time to re-adjust to his old role, they didn’t pressure their defensive star. The decision has paid dividends.
"He's been rounding into form the last couple weeks," head coach Bo Pelini said. "He's feeling good, feeling healthy. I wouldn't trade him for any corner in the country, so he means a lot to our defense."
This week, Nebraska is due to face off against the Northwestern Wildcats, a team that averages 288 passing yards per game – best in the run-centric Big Ten.
"They remind us a lot of the teams in the Big 12, so that's what we're used to," Dennard said. "But it's not going to be easy."
Easy or not, if there’s one player up to the challenge it’s undoubtedly this guy. In a year where everything has come the hard way, Dennard is more than well-equipped to handle the bumps in the road as they come.
Keep an eye on how the savvy defensive star ultimately ends up impacting the Northwestern offense. If he can keep the opposition in gear, the Huskers have a chance to run away with this one just like they did against Michigan State.