“Shilique the Freak” is gone.
Michigan State’s star defensive end was one of the pass defensive players in college football over the past three seasons, but he’s on to a pro career after getting picked in the third round of this year’s NFL Draft. In fact, Calhoun is one of three departed starters from along the Spartans’ defensive line.
So what’s the answer? Michigan State has plenty, a perennial power that can reload anywhere on the field. But the most notable person shouldering the load will be Malik McDowell.
Goodbye, “Shilique the Freak.” Hello, “Malik the Freak.”
“If you just walk in the room with Malik and just see him, he’s a freak,” Michigan State linebacker Riley Bullough said during Big Ten Media Days. “And that shows on the football field. So I’m extremely excited for him this year.
“I think what you’re going to see with Malik is more consistency. He’s going to be getting in the backfield almost every play, he’s not going to take a play off. He’s going to work his tail off, which he has been. Combine all those things, I’m excited for him.”
McDowell is being pegged as one of the nation’s best defensive players heading into his junior season in East Lansing. Last year, he earned All-Big Ten Second Team honors after recording 13 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, an interception, a pair of forced fumbles and a blocked kick. He’s certainly well on his way to living up to the recruiting hype, when he was the No. 1 recruit in the state of Michigan and the No. 26 recruit in the nation in the Class of 2014.
“Malik is a playmaker. No question about that,” head coach Mark Dantonio said. “He's big, athletic, physical. He comes to play every game. And with all that being said, he’s going to be a true junior. He had a big sophomore season last year, played some as a freshman. So I think that this is the year that sort of catapults him. So he's got to have a great year, and I think he's poised to do that.”
McDowell generates the most attention on the Spartans’ defensive line. He’s a defensive tackle, meaning Calhoun’s pass-rushing duties on the edge will be someone else’s responsibility. Evan Jones and Demetrius Cooper were listed as starting defensive ends on Michigan State’s most-recent depth chart.
There are other questions on that side of the ball, too. In their first season following the departure of Pat Narduzzi, the defensive coordinator who left to become the head coach at Pittsburgh, the Spartans allowed an average of better than 21 points a game and nearly 350 yards a game, and a pass defense that was one of the nation’s best just a couple years prior was in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten, eviscerated in Michigan State’s lone loss of the regular season to Nebraska.
The secondary returns with plenty of experience. Darian Hicks and Demetrious Cox are both seniors, Montae Nicholson is a junior, and Vayante Copeland is a sophomore who missed much of last season to injury after winning a starting job out of camp.
And a strong linebacking corps is led by a senior in Bullough and could feature the return of Ed Davis if he gets the sixth year of eligibility he’s working for.
“I think we also have some other great defensive players on our football team that we can build around,” Dantonio said. “We’ve lost some good players, but we've got a lot of good football players coming back. As I said earlier I think we have seven starters from last year's secondary coming back as seven guys who started for us that are very athletic. So we're looking forward to a great football season.”
For a few years there, Michigan State was known for its defense. And while that hasn’t disappeared by any stretch — huge wins over Ohio State and Iowa were dominated by the Michigan State defense — last season the numbers dipped. Without Calhoun and others, will the Spartans take a further step back? Or will more experience elsewhere on the field mean a return to the top of the Big Ten’s statistical heap?
Well, if “Malik the Freak” has anything to say about it, expect the latter.