Late football start can't stop Washington linebacker Cort Dennison
After his mother wouldn't let him play until middle school, senior has shined for Huskies.
Seattle Times staff reporter
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Coaches say Cort Dennison never takes a moment on the field for granted. Maybe it's because Dennison still vividly recalls the years when he couldn't play at all.
His mother, Marianne, wouldn't let him play football alongside his closest friends when Cort was in the fourth and fifth grades growing up in Salt Lake City.
"I was the meanest mom ever," she says with a laugh. "His friends got to play and he begged and pleaded. I just didn't feel he needed to play contact sports until he got into middle school. ''
Says Dennison: "I tried to come up with a bunch of excuses and reasons and be like, 'Hey, mom, my friends can do it.' But she wasn't budging. It wasn't fun for me to hear all my friends' stories of them practicing and playing and I was just that kid that had to sit and listen. I'm not the guy who likes to do that."
Finally, the glorious day arrived.
"Sixth grade couldn't come soon enough," he said. "I was very enthusiastic to be able to hit people."
He hasn't stopped since, being named the Utah Athlete of the Year by The Salt Lake Tribune as a senior at Judge Memorial High School, and earning a starting linebacker spot at Washington as a sophomore.
Now a senior, he's a key piece of Washington's defense as the starting middle linebacker and one of four team captains.
He's the only linebacker with any significant starting experience following the graduations of Mason Foster and Victor Aiyewa. That means Dennison will not only have to play but get other defenders lined up correctly, a key responsibility for his position.
"He's a phenomenal leader," says UW linebackers coach Mike Cox. "He's one of the better leaders I've been around in terms of being a coach on the field. He's brilliant with his football intelligence — who does what at what time and when and all that stuff."
That high football IQ, Cox says, "enables him to play very fast."
Maybe faster than he really is, though Dennison chafes at the perception that he's not as physically gifted as linebackers who have surrounded him the past two years. Donald Butler and Foster are third-round draft picks now playing in the NFL.
Cort excelled at nearly every sport he tried. Marianne Dennison notes that her son was also a good baseball, soccer and tennis player as a child. And for a time, he thought basketball might be his sport.
He went to the same school as the sons of then-Utah Jazz guard John Stockton, becoming particularly good friends with Michael Stockton, who was his age.
Between his sophomore and junior year, however, he decided on football, starring as a tight end and linebacker.
Yet some schools questioned how he projected in college. Utah wanted him only as a preferred walk-on. He thought he might be headed to Army, but then-Washington assistant Kent Baer offered a scholarship.
Dennison, whose grandparents once lived in Sequim, remembered lots of childhood vacations to the area and snapped up the scholarship on the spot. Later, schools such as Stanford showed interest, but like his mom those years ago, he didn't budge.
"I feel like when you have a school be loyal to you from the beginning, that shows that they really want you and care about you," he said. "I felt that I needed to repay them."
Dennison emerged as a starter late in 2009 at outside linebacker. He moved to the middle before the 2010 season and was fourth in the conference in tackles last season with 93 (eight per game).
Playing alongside Foster, however, he didn't always get a lot of notice. "But that's pretty good for a middle linebacker," UW coach Steve Sarkisian said this week.
Not bad for someone who once wondered if he belonged at the Pac-12 level.
"I like being the underdog," he said. "I'd rather produce and win games then get a bunch of hype. That's how it's been with me for a long time and I don't know why it is, but I'm perfectly fine with it if I'm producing and helping this team out to the best of my ability. That's all I can ask for."
Even his mom can't say no to that.
• Running back Chris Polk took part in practice for the first time since having arthroscopic knee surgery on Aug. 18. He was mostly limited to individual drills, and it's unclear if he will play Saturday against Eastern Washington.
"I thought Chris looked good today," Sarkisian said. "We'll see how he responds tomorrow."
• Johri Fogerson (hip) also saw limited practice and could play.
• Cornerback Quinton Richardson, who participated quite a bit on Tuesday, was in pads but did not do any team drills Wednesday and his status for Saturday remains iffy. "Quinton was a little sore today after what he did yesterday," Sarkisian said. "We'll see how he responds to it tomorrow after two days of it, but today he was a little sore."
• Brent Wooten, who played football at Washington and was coach at Eastern Washington, died Monday at age 72 after a lengthy illness. Wooten was a three-sport athlete at Walla Walla High, then lettered three seasons at UW, where he was a halfback and defensive back on the school's back-to-back 10-1 Rose Bowl teams of 1959 and 1960. He was Eastern's head coach from 1968 to 1970, going 11-18, and was also athletic director.
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or email@example.com.
AP also contributed to this article.
|Top five returning tacklers|
|Linebacker Cort Dennison is the leading returning tackler from the 2010 Huskies|
|Cort Dennison, LB||93|
|Nathan Fellner, S||79|
|Hau'oli Jamora, DE||49|
|Desmond Trufant, CB||48|
|Alameda Ta'amu, DT||39|
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