- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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The Big Ten championship, like most games, likely will be decided at the line of scrimmage. But do yourself a favor and sneak a few glances at the perimeter.
There you'll find two of the nation's best cornerbacks in Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard and Ohio State's Bradley Roby. Both are native Georgians (Dennard grew up in Dry Branch; Roby is from Suwanee), both love press coverage and run support, and both could be the first members of their respective teams selected in April's NFL draft.
They are different personalities who have taken different paths, but both faced growth opportunities and seem to be peaking as their college careers wind down.
Dennard on Monday was named the Big Ten's Tatum-Woodson Defensive Back of the Year, the latest honor for a player already named a finalist for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy (nation's top defensive back) and the Jim Thorpe Award (top defensive back). The 5-foot-11, 197-pound senior has 56 tackles, four interceptions, a forced fumble and five quarterback hurries for the nation's No. 1 defense. All-America honors are undoubtedly forthcoming.
He's also a captain for No. 10 Michigan State, an unlikely ending for the skinny, soft-spoken kid who arrived on campus in the summer of 2010.
"You really can't see a transformation much more defining than what 'Queze went through," Spartans linebacker Max Bullough said. "The success he's had on the field in being a captain and being a very influential person, this team is sitting at 11-1, and he's a big part of that."
Roby is a big part of Ohio State's 12-0 mark, but his season has been anything but smooth. He enjoyed many of the accolades Dennard is now receiving back in 2012, when he earned second-team All-America honors and was a semifinalist for the Thorpe Award after leading the nation in passes defended (1.73 per game).
This season has brought a suspension (following a July arrest), an ejection (for targeting against Iowa) and a humbling performance (against Wisconsin's All-Big Ten receiver Jared Abbrederis on Sept. 28). But the ever-confident Roby didn't let his lows linger and has elevated his play for most of the Big Ten season.
"This year was fundamental," Roby told ESPN.com. "When I made the decision to come back, I felt like this was going to happen. I was like, 'Man, it's too easy, two years and I can already go to the [NFL].' But it's not like that. If I really want to be what I want to be in the long term, I have to go through some things and learn and mature.
"The things that happened, I'm not saying I tied it to those situations on purpose just to get in trouble, but everything that's happened has been serious but also[to] the point where I haven't lost everything."
Roby, who switched his commitment from Vanderbilt to Ohio State weeks before signing day in 2010, arrived in Columbus with a clear plan: redshirt one year, play two and then bolt for the NFL.
But in January, he opted to return for his fourth season, saying he had unfinished business as the Buckeyes emerged from NCAA sanctions. After the first few games, however, Roby was thinking more about the NFL than the BCS.
"I was in a mind-set of, 'Yeah, I'm good enough to play in the NFL,'" he said. "When you start thinking like that, you stop doing the things you used to do, when you were hungry, when nobody knew who you were. It was kind of, 'Oh, I don't have to do this drill today. I don't have to watch film as much.'
"You kind of fall off."
The turning point came after Abbrederis recorded 10 receptions for 207 yards at Ohio Stadium. Although Roby thinks he only had a few bad plays, he admits Abbrederis got the best of him. It forced him to narrow his focus.
The following week at Northwestern, he blocked a punt and recovered it for a touchdown. Special teams are a trademark for Roby, who has three career punt blocks and two touchdown recoveries. Another is never giving up on plays.
"He's my ace on kickoff coverage," coach Urban Meyer said. "He's a very valuable member of this team."
While Roby's growth took place this season, Dennard's began much earlier. He had no scholarship offers as a high school senior when Spartans assistant Dave Warner accidentally stumbled upon him while recruiting southern Georgia.
Dennard came to Michigan State at "165 pounds, soaking wet."
"Man, he was little," Bullough said.
"My body just matured after I got here," Dennard said.
Thanks to strength coach Ken Mannie and others, Dennard added 20 pounds as a freshman, when he appeared in six games, starting two. He recorded three interceptions in 2011, including two in Michigan State's Outback Bowl win against Georgia, yet was overshadowed by fellow corner Johnny Adams.
Dennard finally got his due last season, earning first-team All-Big Ten honors. He thrives in an aggressive scheme that isolates cornerbacks on the edges but doesn't ask them to back off.
"Darqueze has had an outstanding year," coach Mark Dantonio said. "Shutdown corner, great tackler. He's got great skills."
Dennard complements his physical skills with leadership.
"When I first got to campus, I really was a shy guy, didn't talk that much," Dennard said. "Once I got to know these guys ... I started talking more. These past two years, I've really started [to become vocal]."
Roby doesn't know Dennard well -- he wasn't aware they're both from Georgia -- but he has watched Dennard, especially in press coverage, which Roby loves even though Ohio State doesn't employ it as much. Roby is well aware of the praise Dennard and his fellow MSU defenders receive and uses it as motivation this week.
"I came back this year for this reason, to be in this position," Roby said. "I've gone through a lot of things on and off the field, but at the end of the day, I'm still in position to get everything I want and everything I’ve been dreaming of.
"It's all on the line this Saturday."