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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (DETROIT FREE PRESS) - Darqueze Dennard already had been named a first-team All-America by USA Today and winner of the Jack Tatum Award as the nation's top defensive back by the Touchdown Club of Columbus, Ohio.

He was one of five finalists for the Nagurski Award, given to the nation's best defensive player; he's a repeat member of the All-Big Ten first team; and he's popping up in the first round of the NFL mock drafts these days. All this for a "two-star" recruit from Dry Branch, Ga.

When it comes to individual awards and defensive backs, though, tonight in Orlando, Fla., offered the ultimate - the Jim Thorpe Award, awarded since 1986 and never before claimed by a Michigan State player.

Dennard changed that, winning over finalists Lamarcus Joyner of Florida State and Justin Gilbert of Oklahoma State.

"It's truly a blessing," Dennard said after ESPN's Chris Fowler gave him the award, thanking God, MSU coach Mark Dantonio, MSU defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi and MSU defensive backs coach Harlon Barnett - with Dantonio and Narduzzi in the audience.

Fowler asked Dennard about the fact that he was a lightly recruited player, and about the fact that No. 4 MSU (12-1) has made it back to the Rose Bowl.

"It means everything," Dennard said, "just not for me, for the team and also Spartan Nation. Just to put Michigan State back up where we're supposed to be. We believe we're an elite program."

Dennard was MSU's second finalist for the Thorpe, joining Todd Krumm in 1987 - a member of the last MSU team to earn a Rose Bowl bid. Dennard will lead MSU against No. 5 Stanford (11-2) in the Jan. 1 Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.

Dennard also earned All-America first-team honors today, being named to the Walter Camp first team. MSU sophomore defensive end Shilique Calhoun was a second-team pick, as he was for the USA Today All-America team.

Dennard has four interceptions and 10 pass break-ups to lead MSU. He also has 59 tackles and two forced fumbles, and he stifled everything that came his way in Saturday's 34-24 win over Ohio State in theBig Tenchampionship game.

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