Darqueze Dennard knows all too well the impact officials can have on a game.
The lone blemish for Dennard's Michigan State Spartans last season came at Notre Dame, in a 17-13 loss that saw the Spartans flagged for four pass interference penalties, including two on what became the Irish's game-winning touchdown drive. Dennard drew one of those flags -- it negated an end-zone interception five plays prior to Notre Dame's go-ahead touchdown.
On another day, with a more forgiving crew calling the game, the aggressive Michigan State defense might have made the difference as it did most Saturdays during a 12-1 season that ended with Big Ten and Rose Bowl titles. On this particular September Saturday, though, Michigan State failed to overcome the tight, controversial officiating.
And because of the resulting loss, the Spartans missed out on a shot at the BCS title.
Fast-forward 10 months and we find Dennard heading into his first NFL training camp with the Cincinnati Bengals, less than a week after a report revealed that the league has asked its officials to crack down on defensive holding and illegal contact. Needless to say, Dennard is paying attention.
"I definitely care how they call the game, they're going to impact the game tremendously," Dennard told SI via a phone interview earlier this week. "That's a huge impact -- you can go from interception to pass interference, those are game-changing plays."
The Bengals drafted Dennard in large part because of his in-your-face defensive style, so adjusting to the NFL always was going to be a challenge. For example, illegal contact is not even part of the NCAA football rule book, so defensive backs can make contact with receivers until the ball is in the air; the NFL limits (at least by the letter of the law) such contact to within five yards of the line of scrimmage.
"All the corners that are coming from college, they have to all adjust," Dennard said. "You were allowed to play more physically (in college) and I used that definitely to my advantage throughout my career. So there will be an adjustment period."
Extra caution may be required initially, but the Bengals hope Dennard can be the nuisance he was in college, even if that means pushing the letter of the law a bit.
Dennard took home the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back last season, along with an All-America nod. He picked off four passes and broke up another 10, all the while encouraging quarterbacks to throw away from him. (His counterpart at cornerback last season, Trae Waynes, might be a Round 1 pick next draft.)
The Spartans' scheme under defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi mirrors rather closely what the Bengals have run under head coach Marvin Lewis. Even with Paul Guenther replacing the departed Mike Zimmer at defensive coordinator, not much figures to change there -- Cincinnati's potentially dominant front four and a strong linebacking group will be asked to do the heavy lifting up front, while the cornerbacks are tasked with man-to-man responsibilities.
"He's smart, he's physical, he's competitive. He does things right," Bengals defensive backs coach Vance Joseph said after Dennard was drafted, via Cincinnati.com. "In this league, if you're a technique-sound corner and you play smart, you can play a long time. There are guys that don't make a bunch of plays, but don't give up big plays. That's the key in this league — to be consistent and smart, and be tough and competitive. He's that."
Walker's glowing scouting report is precisely why most, perhaps all, draft minds expected Dennard to be off the board before Cincinnati picked at No. 24 overall. While the Bengals entered this year's draft hoping to find some help in the secondary, they could not have expected it to fall into their laps the way Dennard did.
And for his part, Dennard thought he might wind up somewhere with a less crowded cornerback depth chart.
"It's definitely a deep position," said Dennard, who in Cincinnati joins Leon Hall, Adam Jones, Terence Newman and 2012 first-round pick Dre Kirkpatrick. "I have the luxury of those guys to get me prepared, they've been in the same situation -- first-round draft picks, high expectations, they want you to come in and be a great player ... they've all been through it, know the ins and outs of it."
Dennard's earliest path onto the field may be through the slot position. That's where he worked during the Bengals' earlier OTAs and mini-camp, on top of spending some time with the special teams units as a coverage player. "Whatever they want me to do, I'll do it," Dennard said.
Above all, what the Bengals really desire is for Dennard to keep playing his game, challenging receivers no matter what the officials have to say.
"Richard Sherman, he's a very physical guy," Dennard said. "A lot of the great and good cornerbacks throughout this league, they can get away with some things. You get the referee to know you're a press guy, maybe he lets you press a little longer, be more physical.
"It's all just seeing how they allow the game to be played."
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