On a whim last spring, Stephen Denmark switched sides and lined up on defense.
Valdosta State was going through one-on-one drills during spring ball when coach Kerwin Bell, now the offensive coordinator at South Florida, asked who could play cornerback.
Denmark raised his hand and said, “I can play it.” Both men had a chuckle and over the next few weeks, Denmark took a handful of reps at the position. When he met with Bell for his exit meeting at the end of spring practices, the coach said, “I know you can play receiver and I think you can play corner — if you put your mind to it.”
Denmark knew he would be a regular for the Blazers at wide receiver, but Bell had inspired confidence in him while also challenging him, and Denmark decided to commit to changing positions with one caveat: If he didn’t like it over the summer, he could return to offense.
That’s the backstory of how Denmark went from being a wide receiver on nobody’s radar — he caught 30 passes over his first three college seasons — to a freakishly sized cornerback who slowly gained exposure as Valdosta State completed a 14-0 season with a victory over Ferris State in the Division II national championship game. Although he was a seventh-round pick, drafted 238th, the Bears’ depth chart behind starters Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara is wide open, especially compared with most other positions on the roster.
General manager Ryan Pace said Denmark was one of the players he was most looking forward to seeing this weekend at rookie minicamp.
Denmark looked every bit the 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds the Bears list him at Friday during the first practice, and his 79½-inch wingspan is massive. The goal for the weekend — besides improving on a deflating end to Friday’s session with six of eight kickers missing field-goal attempts from 43 yards — is to get players who will stick around for the offseason program up to speed with how the Bears practice.
As the offseason progresses and the team reaches training camp in Bourbonnais, it will get a better handle on whether Denmark can battle for a role. His 4.46-second time in the 40-yard dash at his pro day will only help.
Taller cornerbacks face challenges, but Vanderbilt’s Joejuan Williams was the sixth one drafted this year, taken in the second round by the Patriots. Like Denmark, he’s listed at 6-3.
The Bears sent assistant director of player personnel Champ Kelly and secondary coach Deshea Townsend to Valdosta to work out Denmark three days before the draft. They put him on the white board. They looked at some tape. They watched how he moved laterally and made quick transitions. They left impressed with Denmark, who spent all of about a week at cornerback as a sophomore in high school and was not invited to even a low-level college all-star game, let alone the NFL scouting combine. It’s worth noting he comes from the Southeast, where the Bears have area scout Sam Summerville — the one who pushed for the Bears to draft another Division II talent two years ago: running back Tarik Cohen.
If Cohen was a bit of a sleeper as a fourth-round pick, Denmark is a super sleeper. Raw? Very. Intriguing? You bet. The Bears felt Denmark did a nice job absorbing information during the private workout. They liked how he tracked balls in the air on film, not an easy skill for some experienced corners. They liked his physical play.
“I kind of had an idea they really liked me, but when it got late (in Round 7), I didn’t know,” said Denmark, who watched Day 3 of the draft with family and friends. He didn’t schedule a cookout as a draft party until the day after he was selected.
In the pre-draft process, some teams talked about Denmark as a possible safety. Two clubs asked if he was comfortable putting on weight and becoming a linebacker. The Bears want to see him at cornerback, which stands to reason. Cornerbacks are more valuable than safeties, and it would be a mistake to switch him until they know he can’t play the position.
“We’ve got time with him and he’s got traits,”coach Matt Nagy said. “He’s a big guy who can do a lot of things.”
In time, the Bears will learn if Denmark can play off man, if he can play in space and if he can redirect and break on smaller, quicker receivers. If he can, there’s little doubt with his size and strength that he would get physical with receivers and handle them at the line of scrimmage.