DRY BRANCH, Ga. -- If you've ever driven through Dry Branch, Ga. -- and chances are that you haven't -- it's easy to see why Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard nearly fell though the cracks in recruiting.
Dennard's hometown is tucked away in the countryside of aptly named Twiggs County. The "city" limits stretch for about three miles down Old Gordon Road. There's a shuttered elementary school, sheriff's office substation, railroad tracks, volunteer fire department and, of course, a Baptist church that has stood since 1811.
Other than a few dozen homes, there isn't much else. Dennard isn't sure why his hometown is named Dry Branch, but maybe it's because you could throw a branch from one side of town to the other without hitting water (or much of anything else).
"There's no downtown at all," Dennard said. "It is pretty much country."
Make no mistake: College football's best cornerback grew up in the sticks. And with one game to go in his college career, there's no doubt that Dennard -- who is called "Country" by his teammates -- is the sport's best lockdown defender. He became the first MSU player to win the Jim Thorpe Award as the country's best defensive back, was a consensus first-team All-American and was named Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year.
On New Year's Day, Dennard and the No. 4 Spartans will face No. 5 Stanford in the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO. It will be Michigan State's first trip to Pasadena, Calif., in 26 years after it upset then-No. 2 Ohio State 34-24 in the Big Ten championship game to win its first outright league title since 1987.
"I couldn't have imagined this in my wildest dreams," Dennard said. "It is really amazing looking back and realizing the journey I've come along. It's truly a blessing, and I just thank God for allowing it to happen."
Dennard, 22, spent his childhood living with his maternal grandparents, Claude and Peggie Curry, while his mother, Lisa Curry, worked in nearby Macon, Ga. Dennard learned the values of hard work and determination from his grandfather, who worked the kaolin mines of middle Georgia for 22 years. The chalky, white mineral is used in making porcelain, toothpaste and cosmetics, among other things. His grandmother worked 40-hour weeks in a zipper factory for 30 years.
"My grandfather would come home from the mine wearing his gloves and chalk suit, which he'd let me wear," Dennard said. "He took me to the mine and showed me the truck he drove and the office where he worked. I knew I wanted to go a different route. It was hard work."
But near the end of his senior season at Twiggs County High School in Jeffersonville, Ga., Dennard wasn't sure what he was going to do with his life. He was offered a scholarship by Middle Tennessee State before his final prep season, but then the Blue Raiders told him they were going in another direction. When Dennard lined up for his final high school regular-season game against Dooly County (Ga.) High School in 2009, he figured his playing career was about to end.
"I really questioned whether I was going to play college football," Dennard said. "I really didn't know what I was going to do."
What Dennard didn't know was that Michigan State assistant coach Dave Warner was on the sideline, scouting Dooly County High receiver Keith Mumphery. Warner was so impressed with Dennard that he called him while Twiggs County High's team was driving home later that night. Warner visited Dennard's home a couple of weeks later, and then Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio came about a week after to offer him a scholarship. Mumphrey eventually signed with the Spartans, too, and is Dennard's roommate this year.
Darqueze is one of the best corners I've coached really in my 23 years of coaching.
"-- MSU defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi
"When we first saw [Dennard] play it was off of film because we were late in the process," Dantonio said last month. "I thought he was a great football player, but he played all over the place, playing tailback, corner, safety. When he got here and came on to campus in the fall, it didn't take long to understand what we had. He was a guy that was extremely special in terms of [his] ability to concentrate, competitiveness, his knowledge of football and his ability to grasp concepts very, very quickly at the college level."
The Spartans also had to persuade Peggie Curry that Michigan State was the right place for her grandson.
"When I first heard Michigan State, I prayed about it," she said. "Then we talked about it. After he said he wanted to go, I told him I would be behind him 100 percent. I told him I didn't care where he went as long as he got an education."
Once Dennard cracked MSU's starting lineup as a sophomore in 2011, he never left. This season, he led the Spartans with four interceptions, 10 pass breakups and was fourth with 59 tackles. With Dennard seemingly locking down half the field, and MSU's ferocious front seven applying relentless pressure, the Spartans led FBS teams in total defense (248.2 yards per game) and run defense (80.8 yards per game). They were fourth in scoring defense (12.7 points) and fifth in passing defense (167.4 yards).
"Darqueze is one of the best corners I've coached really in my 23 years of coaching," MSU defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said. "He was a Thorpe winner, I think that says enough. He's a lockdown corner, and people talk about how we put him on islands out there. We've got him on safety watch, but we put him on islands out there, and they do a pretty good job of putting people in lockdown."
When Dennard returned home to Dry Branch for a few days before Christmas this week, he allowed himself a few moments to dream about his future -- and to look back at where he started. In May, Dennard will become the first member of his family to graduate with a college degree; he's on track to earn a bachelor's in communication from MSU.
"I've thought about it a little bit," Dennard said. "I think about how far I've come and how my dreams are within arm's length now. All of my goals can come true. My grandfather taught me a lot. He told me a long time ago that nothing was going to be given to me and that I had to work for everything. He told me to make the most of my opportunities and don't think about what we don't have. We didn't have much, but we all loved each other and appreciated what we had."
Dennard's dreams include one more victory for the Spartans.
"It would mean everything," Dennard said. "We want to go out on top and be known as one of the guys that got Michigan State back to the Rose Bowl. We haven't been out here in a long time. It's been a long time coming. Winning this game would mean a lot."