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Dennard making Bengals happy campers

Posted Jun 4, 2014

First-round pick Darqueze Dennard is turning heads in the slot.

Darqueze Dennard, who has big plans for the kids back home, helped out Marvin Lewis' campers this week.

The kid’s name was Demetrius and he said he was in seventh grade. But Darqueze Dennard swore he looked about 15 and darn near the same size as him as they lined up across from each other at the Marvin Lewis Camp Tuesday night.

This was after Dennard taught the kids how to get into a stance and back pedal in such a way that they could read the quarterback’s evil gaze. And this was after Dennard put in a full day at his own camp, where the Bengals are asking him to play slot cornerback for the first time in his life.

Demetrius was going to get a prize if he caught a ball against the Bengals’ No. 1 draft pick and as sure as Marvin Lewis was there watching every one of his 340 campers, Dennard was going to let him catch it.

Until something clicked.

“It just happened,” Dennard said with a shrug. “I was thinking, it’s going to make me look really bad. I stuck my finger out there.”

Mark it down. Pass breakup.

“But then you looked at him after you broke it up,” needled sixth-rounder Marquis Flowers.

It was a good time out there at Lewis’ sixth annual camp this week at Paul Brown Stadium. Around these parts, Lewis putting on an event is like watching A.J. Green go over the middle or Johnny Cueto El Tiante-ing a changeup over the outside corner. You just sit back, watch, enjoy, and then tip your hat on the way out.

None of the kids paid a dime to attend and they came from such organizations earmarked to help at-risk youths as Boys Hope, Girls Hope, and the Cincinnati Recreation Commission, along with a couple of youth football teams that are partners with Lewis’ foundation.

Not only that, Lewis grabbed about half his coaching staff to help him out. It’s a kick watching 6-5 defensive line coach Jay Hayes loom over kids that come up to his socks urging them on like he would Geno Atkins.

Not only that, a bunch of the rookies like Dennard, Flowers, Will Clarke and Dennard’s Michigan State teammate, Isaiah Lewis, actually took to the field and helped the teams get through their games. Dennard may have been invited to New York for the draft, but on this night he was drafted to lob passes to the kids screaming his name.

Not only that, in the middle of it all was Lewis, the head man himself. Some guys put their name on a camp and then helicopter out before the first whistle is blown. But here was Lewis remembering the girl who was all of about seven years old and 50 pounds who apparently ran like a hyperlink to the data on Monday night. On Tuesday night Lewis introduced Briana of Winton Woods to the camp and then mused into the microphone he needed his speed-crazed offensive coordinator to come out and watch.

It all got Dennard thinking a little bit when someone asked him if he had ever had an experience like the one Demetrius had. Turns out the only NFL player he came into contact with growing up in tiny Twiggs County in the middle of Georgia was family friend Tony Hollings, a running back who played 23 games a decade ago.

“The first camp I went to is when I worked one at Michigan State,” Dennard said. “It would be a great experience to work with a real NFL player. A lot of people don’t get that chance. You don’t know what affect you might have on a person. That’s how I always look at it. Just me saying, “Hey, you’re doing great,’ you don’t know what affect that has on his life.”

Dennard has a pretty good idea because he sees it in the blueprint of what he’d like to build in his county of about 10,000 people aimed at the kind of kids he hosted for a cookout as part of his draft bash last month.

 “I hope to make a lot of money playing this sport,’ Dennard said. “My goal is to open up a recreation center back home where there is tutoring throughout the day to help kids K through 12th graders. Helping high schoolers with the ACT and SAT preps. So they have an outlet after school and stay out of the streets.”

He may not have signed his contract yet, but the Bengals are giving him a big money spot. Even though Dennard never played slot in games for the Spartans, cornerbacks coach Vance Joseph hasn’t hesitated in making him the No. 1 slot corner as the Bengals end their second week of voluntary practice Thursday. He’s taking the place of the highest-paid player in their secondary, the rehabbing Leon Hall.

The Bengals got thunder-stormed out Wednesday, but that doesn’t dampen Joseph’s appraisal of Dennard’s first practices in the slot. Already, he says Dennard has better “long,’ speed down the field than he thought.

“He’s smart, he’s mature. I wouldn’t hesitate putting him in there,” Joseph said. “He understands the run fits and the pressure packages and obviously he can match up in the slot coverage wise. So if he can learn it mentally and becomes a good blitzer, he’ll be fine for the nickel.”

Dennard isn’t a good blitzer yet, simply because it’s new to him and Joseph believes it’s an art that feel and repetition sharpen. It’s why Joseph put him in the slot in the first place. The-best-players-on-the-field argument.

“He’s got the speed and the power to be a good blitzer,’ Joseph said.  “He’s got an explosive body so I knew the way he moved laterally he could match those slot receivers. He’s a big, strong guy that can tackle in the box.”

Dennard ho-hums the move. He says he played the slot in practice in college and the biggest adjustment here, he says, has been getting used to the run fits.

“I’m not surprised,” Joseph said of the ease of the transition. “He’s not a normal rookie, a wide-eyed guy. His mistakes have been minimal and the ones he’s made he’s making corrections. Blitzing will be key because he can cover.”

Working behind Dennard in the slot are veteran Chris Lewis-Harris and seventh-rounder Lavelle Westbrooks as the Bengals try to find that sixth cornerback behind Dennard, Hall, Terence Newman, Adam Jones, and Dre Kirkpatrick. Dennard is going to lose his slot job when Hall comes back for training camp, but he’ll be playing it plenty in the preseason games.

For Dennard, now it’s like the answer Lewis got last night from a camper that’s been to all six. Lewis recognized him immediately, a big kid slimming down and growing up, and he said quite candidly, “You’ve been here a long time. I’m sorry, I forgot your name, but I know you’ll know the answer to this.”

And Charles didn’t bat an eye when Lewis asked him, “What is the first thing we do after camp as we head into the summer months?

“Read,” Charles said.

“That’s right,’ Lewis said. “We keep learning.”

Let’s see. The big camp is about 50 days away. The new Twiggs County Rec Center is right behind.

 

 

 

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