49ers.com’s pre-draft series continues with a profile on a rugged cornerback who looks forward to continuing his brand of football in the National Football League.
Nebraska cornerback Alfonzo Dennard thinks he can count all the touchdowns he allowed last season on just one hand.
Scratch that, Dennard thinks he can count every touchdown he surrendered in 2011 on one finger.
“One, I think. Last year,” said the 5-foot-10, 204-pound prospect who could potentially be available when the 49ers select the 30th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft.
Confident in his abilities to be a press-man cornerback in the NFL, Dennard shared insight into how he became such a physical player at the 2012 NFL Scouting Combine. Growing up, the Nebraska cornerback needed more than two hands to count his siblings. Dennard grew up with 10 brothers and three sisters. So asserting himself into any situation hasn’t been much of a problem for Dennard.
The senior cornerback was a first-team All-Big Ten selection in 2011, adding the conference’s Tatum-Woodson Defensive Back of the Year award to his accomplishments.
Furthermore, opposing quarterbacks in the Big Ten posted a conference-low 51-percent completion percentage when facing Dennard and his fellow Nebraska defensive backs.
In the mind of the cornerback who posted 31 tackles, despite missing three games to start the season with a pulled right leg muscle, physicality at the line of scrimmage gave him a huge advantage.
“My pressing ability,” Dennard detailed, “once I get my hands on a receiver, I feel like they are done.”
So were opposing running backs in most cases.
Dennard finished his four-year career with 97 tackles, including four tackles behind the opponent’s line of scrimmage, as well as 21 pass breakups, four interceptions and four quarterback hurries.
Standing two inches short of being 6-feet-tall, Dennard doesn’t see his body type being a disadvantage. Determination and technique enabled him to make so many plays for the Huskers.
“Height doesn’t matter. Size doesn’t matter at all,” Dennard explained. “To play cornerback, you have to have the mentality that you can stop anyone on the field. So that’s what I try to keep in my mind, that I can play with the best of them.”
Following the advice of Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini, who was the defensive backs coach on San Francisco’s last Super Bowl-winning coaching staff, Dennard makes sure to use his hands as often as possible.
“When I see a big receiver like 6-4, 6-5, I try to get my hands on them as much as I can because sometimes it frustrates them a lot,” Dennard said. “That’s what Coach Pelini always told us, ‘Clamp your hands on a big receiver like that,’ so that’s what I will continue to do.”
It was evident in his high-profile matchup against South Carolina wide receiver Alshon Jeffery. Both players got caught up in a minor sideline skirmish. As a result, the two prospects were ejected from the Capital One Bowl.
Now, as he’s attempting to join other elite football players on the NFL stage, Dennard is confident his 4.55, 40-yard dash speed and 37-inch vertical jump (which he posted at the combine) will prove to defensive back-needy teams that he can step in and compete.
The Nebraska corner said he even patterns his game after Green Bay Packers defensive standout Charles Woodson. Dennard later said he brings a different skill set than his former teammate Prince Amukamara, who was drafted 19th overall by the New York Giants last season.
In his mind, Dennard’s play developed even more in his senior year, despite not having Amukamara covering the opposite side of the field. With Corey Raymond, a former NFL defensive back, serving as Nebraska’s new defensive backs coach in 2011, Dennard focused on improving his footwork to go along with his physical jamming style at the line of scrimmage.
Asked to compare his game to Amukamara’s, Dennard was rather blunt in his assessment:
“I’m a more physical guy. He plays off a lot. I’d rather press,” Dennard said. “We are similar because of our work ethics. Both of us want to be the best. When he was there, he taught me a lot and I taught him a lot. We both fed off each other.”
Dennard competed throughout his Huskers career, not just as an upperclassman.
As a true freshman, Dennard recorded 12 tackles and eventually worked his way into a more consistent role, making nine starts the following year as a sophomore. As a junior, playing opposite of Amukamara, Dennard was voted second-team all-conference, a year when Nebraska finished its run in the Big 12 Conference.
Dennard rekindled some of those conference rivalries earlier this offseason at the 2012 Senior Bowl. Performing in front of all the league’s talent evaluators, Dennard was asked to show his off-coverage skills.
“It was different a lot from press man,” he explained. “That’s what I was taught at Nebraska – go up in the receiver’s face all day long. But when they told me to play off, I didn’t question that either. I’ll do whatever they tell me to do. I don’t think it’s a big deal, though.
“People know I can press, and I just need to work at playing off.”
With just about every NFL team possessing wide receivers with top-flight speed, Dennard’s intention to show well-rounded skills is a must from now until the NFL Draft.
Dennard doesn’t look at it like he has something to prove to NFL teams. He merely sees the pre-draft process as showing clubs his ability to adapt and get better.
“I’ve got four years of film, but I always can get better at everything I do,” Dennard said. “I can get more fluid in my hips, footwork. I can improve a lot.”
Dennard prides himself on being a quick learner, and is even open to playing for a team that prefers zone defenses to man-to-man schemes.
For all his life, Dennard has made a point to improve based on competition.
Growing up with so many siblings, he had no choice but to.
“It toughened us up a lot,” Dennard said. “That’s why I have my physical ability.”
Soon, Dennard can flash that ability for his new family, one of 32 NFL clubs that submits his name on draft weekend.