With three first-round selections during the last draft cycle in Jeffery Simmons, Montez Sweat and Johnathan Abram, Mississippi State tied Alabama and Clemson for the most prospects from one school selected on opening night.
The Bulldogs had become a hotbed for talent and it's no surprise to see success from players like Fletcher Cox and Darius Slay, but there's been plenty more to enter the league since.
The next in line is Cameron Dantzler. Standing at 6-foot-2 and weighing 185 pounds, he’s a far cry from his 155-pound stature he entered Starkville, Mississippi, with. The All-SEC cover man has now entered the middle of what is already considered a deep class at the position.
His story originated in Hammond, Louisiana, a small town that's about an hour outside of New Orleans. He spent most of his childhood as a two-sport athlete, participating in track and football.
The countless hours spent on the track and gridiron carried over into a historic high school career as a standout three-star athlete at St. Thomas Aquinas. Not only was he a shutdown corner on Friday nights, but he was leaping into new heights as the school’s record-setting long jumper and 2014 and 2015 Class 2A state champion.
His athletic prowess helped him experience success at quarterback, wide receiver and defensive back. He finished his final campaign with over 3,200 all-purpose yards and 37 touchdowns, while still maintaining a high-performance on defense with two interceptions, one which was returned for a pick-6.
Recruiters were flocking to Dantzler, but there were mixed opinions about which position he translated the best to at the next level. But the lanky defensive back was still ranked as the second-best athlete in the entire state by most major recruiting services. He eventually landed in Starkville, which is only four hours away from his hometown, Hammond.
Despite barely tipping the weight scale at 160 pounds, the Bulldogs coaching staff agreed to redshirt him during the 2016 season. Dantzler was used mainly as a backup corner during the following season. He appeared in all 13 games and went on to finish with 25 tackles and one interception. The turning point in his career came during the final game of 2017 against Louisville in the Tax Slayer Bowl.
A miscommunication between then-quarterback Lamar Jackson and his intended target led to a give-me interception that fired right into the chest of Dantzler. After that, through his redshirt sophomore season, he took over the starting field cornerback spot for the first time.
He started all 13 games and recorded 43 tackles, two tackles for loss, two interceptions and a team-leading 11 pass breakups. But the most impressive statistics? He didn't allow a touchdown pass over the course of the year.
His success continued during his junior season as he recorded 40 tackles and a team-leading two interceptions. Dantzler played under the tutelage of cornerbacks coach Terrell Buckley, a great football mind in his own right. The former Super Bowl champion had a lot of high praise for one of the best corners in the SEC. Buckley told the Mississippi Daily Journal that "after this year, I’ll have about 15 guys that have signed professional contracts and I have just as much confidence in him as I had about Xavier Rhodes and Jaire Alexander.”
“He’s buying into not just the talent part,” Buckley added. “The talent and the mental capacity that he has is starting to merge. Once it really merges and he gets it, it’s just going to be scary.”
I spent last weekend with the former SEC standout to find out how his development improved so quickly, how track helped him and what he's looking forward to the most in the coming months.
The following transcript has been edited for clarity.
Question: You're from Hammond, but take me back to how you got involved with football.
Dantzler: When I was small, my dad always wanted us to be active, play sports and get out of the house. My uncle had a youth team coaching youth football back in my hometown and I tried it out. My first time playing, I got ran over and didn't want to play anymore. So I quit, and my dad came home from work and asked me why I wasn't at practice. I told him because they were hitting too hard. After that, he gave me a little pep talk and I went back out there and started playing. Ever since then, I fell in love with the game.
Q: You were a standout track and field athlete. How did that experience help you as a person and as an athlete?
D: I was always athletic, but I was never a guy that liked to run or anything like that. I really didn't do track until my junior year. The only reason I did it is because our track coached asked me to long jump for the team. I tried it out, fell in love with it and eventually got good at it. I actually won states two years straight — indoor and outdoor. So, it was something I fell in love with over time outside of football.
Q: You were labeled mostly as an athlete coming out of high school because you played so many different positions. Walk me through those transitions.
D: My freshman year, I played safety. In my sophomore year, I played like nickel and wide receiver, and then junior and senior year, I played quarterback.
Q: Why Mississippi State? What made you choose to continue your career there?
D: It felt like home and I felt more comfortable there than anywhere else. That was clearly the best option for me and at the end of the day, it really was without question.
Q: One thing that I love about your game is, of course, your length, but the biggest is your technique in press man coverage. You seem like you enjoy locking players up on the outside, but why do you enjoy playing press man so much?
D: I just like it because, you know, a lot of guys can't do it. Me being an underdog, I just feel like with me being in press man just proves what I can do and allows me to show what I'm capable of in man coverage and why I'm one of the top corners in the country and in this draft.
Q: You were very skinny coming out of high school. What was your exact weight entering college?
D: I really was like 158 pounds. I have a high metabolism and I actually ate a lot more than big guys, and everyone used to ask me, "How can you eat so much, but still be so skinny?" I just kept saying that I really don't know.
Q: There’s a play that I want you to walk me through. It was the first play coming out of halftime against LSU. You were guarding Ja'Marr Chase down the sideline and it should've been an interception. There are some cornerbacks that play the hands of the receiver while there are others that like to turn their head around and find the ball in the air. Which one do you like to do?
D: I really like trying to find the ball in the air, but I had bad experiences with back shoulders and the fantastic coaching that I had with Buckley, we always went to practice and did everything that we needed to work on.
So, on that particular play, I know that the quarterback saw single-high safeties alignment and I felt that he was going to come my way because I was by myself and since I was going against Chase. Coach taught us to play up his backside shoulder and that helped me make a play on the ball — still kind of sick that I didn't catch that interception.
Q: Speaking of Buckley, can you share how much he means to you and what you learned from him?
D: He means a lot to all of us. Not just me. He taught all of us a lot and it's not just a football aspect, but about life, financially and how to be a better man at the end of the day. That's like a bonus with him. Just having a guy like him in your corner was such a blessing.
Q: Right now, what would you say is your biggest strength and weakness as a player?
D: I'll start with my weakness and it's my eyes. That's something that I'll have to work on because I had three different defensive coordinators and with a lot of them, we played mostly man, but when coach Bob Shoop got there, there was a bunch of backpedaling and shuffling. That's something that I'll have to work on with my game. A few of my strengths are tackling and press coverage.
Q: When did the NFL become a reality?
D: I would say my junior year of high school. Watching the NFL, it's something that I've always wanted. My dad used to always get excited watching the New Orleans Saints play and hopefully, one day, he'll be excited to see me play on that level on TV. I also can take care of my family by doing something that I love to do.
Jalen Ramsey and Richard Sherman are two guys that I study a lot. Their technique, read steps and just their attitude towards the game. Both are rangy corners and they are both confident in their game. That's something that you're supposed to have as a corner. You have to be comfortable and confident in what you do. Both of those guys are that.