It is not hard to find similarities between Darqueze Dennard and Trae Waynes. Both have played cornerback at Michigan State. Both were two-star high school recruits (according to one service) overlooked by more prestigious programs. Both were instrumental in helping the Spartans win the Big Ten Championship and Rose Bowl last season. Yet the most striking parallel is something you won’t easily notice from afar.
Like Dennard, a first-round pick in the 2014 draft, Waynes is fiercely competitive in practices and games. Waynes tries to emulate how Dennard would seethe whenever an opponent caught a pass in his area or beat him one-on-one, and then put forth a stronger effort on the next snap. It’s a mentality that doesn’t abide allowing frustration over mistakes to linger. “He had the exact same attitude. He hated to lose,” Waynes told SI.com. He added, “So I just try piggy back off of his play and try to do the same thing.”
Defensive backs coach Harlon Barnett described it to Waynes as a “dog” mentality. Waynes will need to maintain that mentality to help ensure Michigan State’s pass defense doesn’t slip after one of the most successful seasons in program history. There are high expectations for Waynes entering 2014. Before he became a potential breakout star and projected first-round draft pick, however, Waynes was an inexperienced reserve just looking to make a name for himself.
When senior cornerback Johnny Adams was ruled out of Michigan State’s matchup with TCU in the 2012 Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, Waynes was given the opportunity to compete for playing time. Coaches had liked what they’d seen from Waynes in practices, but the redshirt freshman had been relegated to special-teams action during games. Then, against the Horned Frogs, he recorded three tackles and half a sack and provided solid coverage throughout.
The performance wasn’t a fluke. After impressing coaches in offseason workouts, Waynes started every game of the 2013 season and earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors as Michigan State led the country in pass efficiency defense. Though overshadowed by Dennard, who lined up opposite him, Waynes recorded 50 tackles, defended eight passes, intercepted another three, and was a crucial component of the Spartans’ self-styled “No Fly Zone” pass defense (a moniker that is so popular, it has since been cribbed by an NFL team).
For evidence of Waynes’ competitive mentality, look no further than the Rose Bowl. On the Cardinal’s first pass play, quarterback Kevin Hogan hit receiver Michael Rector, who was being covered by Waynes, for a 43-yard-completion. Stanford scored the game’s first touchdown a few plays later. When Hogan tried to connect with Hogan again in the third quarter, this time with the score knotted at 17, Waynes came down with the ball. The sequence is a cautionary tale for opposing play-callers who consider targeting Waynes twice on a similar play.
This season, Waynes, now a redshirt junior, will be taking on a more important role in the Spartans’ secondary. At boundary cornerback, where Dennard played last season, Waynes will be targeted more often, as it’s a shorter throw for the quarterback than the opposite field side. Waynes will also be tasked with participating more in stopping the run and blitzing. The position switch took Waynes a little bit of time to get used to. “During spring ball, he did a great job,” defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi told SI.com. “But he was like, ‘Man this is a lot different over here.’”
While Waynes’ understanding of the defense has improved drastically since that 2012 bowl game, what sticks out about his progress since then is his consistency. “We’ve had corners here that have started for us for two, three years that aren’t as consistent as this guy,” Narduzzi said. “He’s a practice player very similar to Darqueze Dennard, where he plays the same way he practices.” Narduzzi added, “What you have to love about him – you can trust him going into a Saturday afternoon that he’s going to do what he’s supposed to do because he’s done it all week.”
Of course, Michigan State coaches aren’t alone in their optimism about Waynes heading into the 2014 season. At 6-1, 185 pounds and with top-end speed, Waynes has the physical tools to blossom into one of the nation’s top corners. His combination of strength, athleticism and agility helps Waynes lock down a variety of receiving targets. Pair that athleticism with solid technique, and it’s not hard to see why NFL scouts are beginning to take notice.
Before the NFL comes into play, Waynes, who has two seasons of eligibility remaining, will lead a defense that loses six starters – among them Dennard, stud linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen and safety Isaiah Lewis. It will fall upon Waynes and other key returners like ends Shilique Calhoun and Marcus Rush, linebacker Taiwan Jones and safety Kurtis Drummond to keep the defense performing at a nationally elite level. The Spartans ranked in the nation’s top three in scoring and total defense and posted high marks in other major categories. “We’re trying to keep progressing,” Waynes said. “We’re trying to be better than the defense we had last year.”
By the end of the season, there may be a few more similarities between Waynes and Dennard, who earned first-team All-Big Ten and All-America honors in 2013. “Trae (Waynes) will move to my side, and Trae will end up being two times better than me,'' Dennard said in February. Even if Dennard’s proclamation is unrealistic, the message is clear. With Waynes filling in, the cornerback spot Dennard left behind should be in good shape.