- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard made his 29th career start last Saturday against Youngstown State. Safety Isaiah Lewis missed the game with injury but still has 30 starts under his belt, tied for the most of any Spartan.
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.
"I tell them I've been a secondary coach all my life, for 30 years," Dantonio told ESPN.com in August. "I kid them that we only travel 10 on my bus, on the All-Coach Dantonio secondary team. And Isaiah and Queze, they're both on the bus.
"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."
Lewis also is on the Thorpe Award watch list after earning honorable mention All-Big Ten honors as a junior. He has recorded 154 tackles, six interceptions and nine pass breakups the past two seasons as Michigan State has blossomed as a top 10 defense.
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."