NCF Nation: Chris Gamble
But when it comes to The Bus, Dennard and Lewis are glorified special teamers, barely hanging onto roster spots. See, The Bus doesn't care about career starts. All of its regular riders have those. You need to bring something more: All-Big Ten honors, All-America honors, a national award or two. Helping your team to a Big Ten championship -- and possibly more -- moves you up a few rows.
What is this magic bus? Let's let Pete Townshend, er, Mark Dantonio explain.
"So they're traveling, they're playing on special teams, but they've got to become a starter this year."
It won't be easy, looking at the group sitting at the front of The Bus.
There's Mike Doss, the former Ohio State safety who Dantonio coached in Columbus, a three-time first-team All-Big Ten selection and a unanimous consensus All-American in 2002, when the Buckeyes won the national title. Next to Doss is former Buckeyes teammate Chris Gamble, a first-team All-Big Ten selection in 2002 who also contributed on special teams and offense before becoming a first-round NFL draft pick. Other D-Bus starters include Kwamie Lassiter, who Dantonio coached at Kansas; and safeties Aric Morris and Renaldo Hill, who Dantonio mentored at Michigan State during his first go-round as an assistant for Nick Saban.
"It's very humbling," Dennard said. "Me and Isaiah, we both think we are very blessed to be mentioned with those guys. Those are great players he always mentions on his bus. It’s a great thing to even be talked about at the same time. We have to have a mindset how it is, we have to be the top of the top of the top of the bus."
It's a lofty goal, but one that Dennard could reach as a senior. He earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the league's coaches last year after recording 52 tackles, three interceptions and seven pass breakups for one of the nation's best defenses. More impressive, he played most of the season with a sports hernia, likely suffered in September. Dennard underwent surgery after the season.
"He could have had his intestines hanging out, and he wouldn't have done anything about it," defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said. "The kid's that tough."
Dennard entered the fall on the watch lists for the Jim Thorpe Award, given to the nation's top defensive back, as well as the Bednarik and Nagurski awards, which go to the top defensive player. The 5-11, 197-pound senior should push Ohio State's Bradley Roby for the Big Ten's Tatum-Woodson Defensive Back of the Year award.
He's also a potential high pick in next April's NFL draft.
"He's probably the best corner we've coached," Narduzzi said this spring. "And he's a fun kid to coach."
Dantonio doesn't bring up names like Doss and Gamble with his current players, but he lets them know where they stand.
"For Coach Dantonio to tell you you're one of the best guys he has ever seen play this position, one of the best guys he has ever coached at this position, it means a lot, man," Lewis said. "You want to be the best and want to do better."
Dennard knows firsthand how preseason praise, whether it stems from his coaches or the outside, means nothing unless he can back it up on the field. Last year, he played opposite cornerback Johnny Adams, who entered the season projected as a potential first-round pick -- Mel Kiper had Adams at No. 14 on his initial Big Board -- but didn't take his game to the next level. Adams earned All-Big Ten honors but missed Michigan State's bowl game with an injury, wasn't drafted and twice was waived by NFL teams last month before making the Buffalo Bills' roster.
"Knowing all the things he did throughout his career here, it kind of gets you down," Dennard said. "But at the same time, I too much don’t think about it. … It's definitely motivation. Just going in every day, from my standpoint you can't be complacent with everything. Preseason is preseason."
Lewis is expected to join Dennard this week when Michigan State faces its first major test of the season on the road against No. 23 Notre Dame. Although the Spartans finally looked like a functional offense last Saturday against Youngstown State, they'll lean on their defense against an Irish team averaging 236 pass yards a game and deep threats T.J. Jones, DaVaris Daniels and Chris Brown.
Big plays have been a theme early this season for the "Spartan Dawgs," who already have eight takeaways, tied for sixth most nationally and nearly half of their total (20) from all of 2012. Dennard and Lewis look to continue to trend in South Bend.
"We have to make more plays," Dennard said. "We have to make more interceptions for touchdowns and have to do more exciting things, like forcing fumbles or scoring touchdowns or doing whatever, big hits or whatever to make Coach D happy."
If they do, they'll earn permanent spots on the bus, seated toward the front.
" After this year, are they going to belong with the likes of Mike Doss, Chris Gamble, Kwamie Lassiter, Aric Morris, Renaldo Hill?" Dantonio said. "Those guys who are starting in front of them right now, guys that we've coached, they're very, very good players. [Denard and Lewis] are making their way onto the field, onto that team."
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
By all accounts, Malcolm Jenkins could have spent August in an NFL training camp.
Five teams drafted cornerbacks in the first round of April's draft -- Buffalo, Arizona, Tampa Bay, Dallas, San Diego -- and Jenkins would have been a great fit with any of them. He had recorded four interceptions and seven pass deflections in back-to-back seasons, earned consecutive first-team All-Big Ten selections and several All-America mentions.
|AP Photo/Amy Sancetta|
|Against Purdue, Malcolm Jenkins blocked a punt that teammate Etienne Sabino returned to the end zone for the game's only touchdown.|
An NFL prototype at 6-foot-1 and 201 pounds, Jenkins was regarded as one of the best, if not the best cornerback in last year's class. But he opted to return to Ohio State for his senior season, saying he still had more to accomplish as a college player.
Jenkins reported for Buckeyes preseason camp Aug. 3, just as he had the previous three years. He tried to focus on the coming season and the unfinished goals ahead of him -- a national title, the Thorpe Award -- but he couldn't completely block out his own hype.
"The hardest thing in sports, period, and kind of in life, is to handle praise," Jenkins said. "It's kind of easy to handle people doubting you and saying you can't do things because if you have a strong-enough attitude, you'll just use that as fuel.
"But whenever you have people telling you that you're at the top and you're the best, it's hard not to believe it. It's hard to motivate yourself. Your attitude is, 'Well, if I'm at the top, how much better can I get?'"