After Alfonzo Dennard would work over Nebraska's young receivers during 7-on-7 drills last summer, they sometimes would run up to Brandon Kinnie and whine about the cornerback's tactics.
The senior leader of the receiving corps counseled them to calm down and look at the bright side.
"I swear to you that you'll never have to deal with that from anyone else this season," Kinnie would say. "You aren't going to play against a better cornerback."
Kinnie probably would get no argument from Michigan State's B.J. Cunningham and Iowa's Marvin McNutt. Dennard shut down the two Big Ten stars with his physical play, adding a confident attitude that gets under a receiver's skin.
Dennard earned All-Big Ten honors and won the conference's inaugural Tatum-Woodson Defensive Back of the Year Award. He wasn't, however, among even the 15 semifinalists for the Thorpe Award as the nation's premier defensive back. LSU's Morris Claiborne was the winner.
The snub motivates him as he prepares for the No. 21 Cornhuskers' game against No. 10 South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl on Jan. 2.
Dennard said he understood he probably wouldn't win the Thorpe because he missed the first three games with a muscle strain in his right leg.
"I was upset I couldn't be a top finalist," Dennard said.
Dennard's statistics were modest. He had no interceptions and six pass breakups. But many opposing offenses, knowing his reputation, didn't throw his way. Offenses that did test Dennard didn't end up having much to show for it.
"I think he'll get his due come the draft," coach Bo Pelini said.
Dennard is projected as a first-round NFL pick even though he's a bit undersized at 5-foot-10. Aggressiveness is his strength. He has thrived under college rules, which allow contact with the receiver beyond 5 yards as long as the ball isn't in the air, and he has a knack for jumping underneath routes and breaking up passes.
Kinnie said Dennard has an irritating way of using his small stature to his advantage.
"He puts his arm into your chin," Kinnie said, "and you feel it."
Dennard said his physical nature developed from roughhousing with his older brother and nurtured during his days playing linebacker in high school in Rochelle, Ga.
"When I was upset with my brother I took it out on the field," he said. "I went out and hit somebody in the mouth when I was mad. I guess it's the way I grew up."
Redshirt freshman Kenny Bell, one of those receivers who complained to Kinnie about Dennard, said Dennard is one of the fiercest competitors he has encountered.
"He does love beating on people," Bell said. "He gets his hands on you and they don't come off."
Something else adds to the aggravation, Bell said. When Dennard gets the best of his opponent, he likes to chirp about it, though Dennard denies it.
"Any time a guy is beating you up and lets you know he's beating you up," Bell said, "that's the worst."
Dennard provided Cunningham an afternoon of frustration, holding the Michigan State star without a catch for the first time in 41 games.
Against Iowa, Dennard was ordered to line up across from McNutt on every play, usually in press coverage. The Big Ten receiver of the year had two catches for a yard through three quarters before Dennard turned things over to backup Andrew Green.
McNutt finished with a season-low four receptions for 29 yards, and Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said no one had ever done a better job against McNutt than Dennard.
"Dennard," Ferentz said "is a hell of a corner."
With Dennard anchoring the secondary, opponents completed a Big Ten-low 51 percent of their passes, and the Huskers allowed a league-low six touchdown passes in conference play.
Dennard will get a big test in the Capital One Bowl, where he'll likely be matched against a potential first-round pick in Alshon Jeffery.
Dennard said he's excited about helping the Huskers win a 10th game for the third straight year. But he also looks at the bowl as an opportunity to gain exposure in advance of the draft.
He said he still isn't fully recovered from his muscle strain but is capable of keeping up with whoever he's assigned to defend.
"I'm trying to get healthy," he said, "and when the scouting combine comes, I'll be able to run a decent time and jump pretty good."