Big Ten fans heard a lot about Nebraska cornerback Alfonzo Dennard this summer. Adam and I ranked him No. 13 in our league player rankings, and Dennard made several preseason awards watch lists.
But those who hadn't previously watched the senior play might have spent much of this season wondering what the big deal was. Dennard missed the first three games with a quadriceps injury he suffered in August practice, and even after returning he didn't make a huge impact. Meanwhile, the entire Cornhuskers defense struggled to stop teams like Washington and Wisconsin.
The truth is, Dennard wasn't really himself for the first few games after he came back this season.
"Every single time I went out there, I was thinking about my quad," he told ESPN.com this week. "I wasn't even focused on my plays and stuff like that, because I was scared of being injured again."
Dennard said he didn't begin to start feeling truly healthy again until the Oct. 8 Ohio State game. Even then, he felt rusty with his technique and timing, thinking too much instead of just reacting. That changed last week.
"In the Michigan State game, I felt like I kind of picked up where I left off last year," he said.
And fans finally got to see what the fuss was about. Nebraska matched up Dennard most of the day with B.J. Cunningham, the Spartans' all-time leading receiver and one of the best wideouts in the league. Cunningham didn't record a single catch for the first time in 41 games. Not so coincidentally, the Huskers had their finest overall defensive performance of the season in a 24-3 win.
It's far too simplistic to say that Dennard is the only reason that the Blackshirts are back. But he is a big reason.
"When you know you've got a guy that's better, who can shut a guy down, that almost eliminates someone else from the equation," safety Austin Cassidy said. "Then maybe we can use a safety in on the run, or maybe we can focus on another wide receiver. If he takes care of his responsibility, that means we can give somebody else some help who might need it more."
Dennard didn't get it all done by himself last week. He had safety help on just about every deep try to Cunningham, often from the rapidly improving Daimion Stafford.
"That's a big deal," Dennard said. "When you don't have safety help, you can be kind of hesitant out there. But when you have help over the top, you can be as aggressive as you want."
The 5-foot-10, 205-pound corner likes to be aggressive. Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said Cunningham has been great all year in going and getting jump balls, but he couldn't outwrestle Dennard for any. Dennard hasn't picked up an interception yet this season but has been close several times.
"He's been rounding into form the last couple weeks," head coach Bo Pelini said. "He's feeling good, feeling healthy. I wouldn't trade him for any corner in the country, so he means a lot to our defense."
Dennard will be challenged this week against Northwestern, which leads the league in passing offense (288 yards per game) during Big Ten play. He'll likely cover Wildcats star receiver Jeremy Ebert, and Dan Persa is the kind of mobile quarterback who has given the Huskers fits this season.
"They remind us a lot of the teams in the Big 12, so that's what we're used to," Dennard said. "But it's not going to be easy."
Little has come easy for Dennard most of this season. But he's back to the form that caused so many high preseason expectations. And the Blackshirts just might be, too.