CINCINNATI -- When Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther saw Darqueze Dennard practice in person for the first time, he had an immediate revelation.
It was that day that Guenther joined Bengals co-defensive backs coach Vance Joseph in realizing that Dennard might be the key to helping them connect their team's cornerback past with its future. When the pair looked at the way the self-proclaimed "shutdown cornerback" used his hands and feet in drills they had designed for him, they were reminded of a player they already knew quite well.
"[We] said, 'That's Leon Hall,'" Guenther said.
From his on-field mannerisms, to his physical style of play, to his soft-spoken yet still assertive way of talking, so much about Dennard reminded the two coaches of Hall, one of their veteran cornerbacks who is in the final stages of rehabilitation from an injury that cut short his 2013 season. It was that day that had Guenther and Joseph convinced: if by some miracle Dennard was still available when the Bengals' first-round pick came around in this year's draft, the team would pounce on him.
Cincinnati did just that in Thursday night's opening round, taking Dennard at No. 24.
About the only place where the Hall-Dennard comparisons end is with respect to the players' alma maters. Dennard, like Bengals defensive tackle Domata Peko, hails from Michigan State. Hall is the team's resident Michigan man, known to occasionally needle his teammates who went to Michigan State or Ohio State.
"I'm not going to hold that against him," Dennard said of Hall's college choice.
With a bevy of aging corners that included the likes of Hall, Adam Jones and Terence Newman, the Bengals entered this draft cycle believing it was time to start thinking about the future at the position.
Dennard won't start right away, but he gives the Bengals the right understudy.
There are good reasons to believe that the Dennard experiment will go well. For starters, Dennard possesses a fearlessness that has head coach Marvin Lewis giddy.
"In [Michigan State's] scheme, they really switched and were a big-time pressure defense over the last year," Lewis said. "So he's been out there [on an island] by himself quite a bit. He's got a great feel of being around receivers, he's not afraid. Part of playing in that job back there at cornerback is that you can't be scared. He has that great feel around him. He can run and cover and get his hands on guys. That's what you've got to have in a cornerback."
You also want to trust your cornerback, something Joseph seems hopeful about doing with Dennard.
"He's got a very high floor," Joseph said. "So if he drops, it shouldn't be very far."
Each of the coaches credited Dennard's fundamental, physical and constantly jamming style of play as a major reason why he was perfect for their aggressive, man-based scheme.
"He played good people, so I would say, 'Yes. He's probably the most physical corner in the draft,'" Joseph said. "In this league if you're a technique-sound corner and you play smart, you can play a long time. It's guys that don't make a bunch of plays, but that don't give up big plays. That's the key in this league is to be consistent and smart, to be tough and competitive. He's that."