Last season, the college football world talked about how great Jadeveon Clowney would be on the next level. This season, those same people may be talking about Michigan State’s Shilique Calhoun.
The junior defensive end is playing in a league where pass rush is key against the corn-fed bigguns on the offensive lines in the conference. Calhoun could prove to be the first overall pick in next year’s NFL Draft.
The Spartans capped an impressive, and under the radar season, with a win in the Rose Bowl over Stanford. A solid nucleus of starters on offense along with a solid recruiting class make Michigan State another team to look out for this season. But honestly, they are a step below Ohio State and potentially Nebraska (my sleeper team this season). These are the 10 things you should know about Michigan State as the season approaches.
MORE SHILIQUE CALHOUN
If you weren’t solid on Calhoun, maybe these numbers will impress you: Big Ten Defensive Linemen of the Year, Second Team All American, and First Team All-Big Ten. Fourteen tackles or a loss, 7.5 sacks, an interception returned 56 yards for a touchdown. He had 18 hurries two forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries. No word yet if he collected some quarterbacks and running backs along the way.
After changing the team name from "Aggies" to "Spartans" in 1925, various incarnations of a Spartan warrior with a prominent chin appeared at university events and in university literature. In 1943, MSU art professor Leonard D. Jungwirth designed a statue for the university, which had to be cast in terra cotta because of World War II rationing. In 2005, the university replaced Jungwirth's original statue with a bronze replica, moving the original indoors to protect it from the elements. Sparty appears in several other incarnations. In printed literature, the university uses a copyrighted cartoon Spartan, usually drawn with a grimace and several days worth of whiskers, lending the nickname of "Gruff" Sparty. Finally, Sparty appears as a foam rubber mascot with an oversized head. The mascot costume, worn by an anonymous student, appears at most university sporting, alumni, and fundraising events. That’s one busy mascot.
The Spartans return their three major offensive weapons this season. Junior Connor Cook will remain under center. Senior Jeremy Langford returns at running back. Tony Lippett, a tall, lanky receiver, returns for his senior season.
After a delay in the process, Malik McDowell, a well sought after defensive linemen, signed his national letter of intent to play at Michigan State. The Detroit native, was a U.S. Army All American and could make a solid impact right away on the defensive front.
READING IN BETWEEN THE LINES
Five players with starting experience return to an offensive line that allowed 17 sacks last season, tied for third-fewest in the Big Ten. Sophomore left tackle Jack Conklin, a Freshman All-American in 2013, has yet to allow a sack in his career. No, there is no Tony Mandarich in any of these lists of solid linemen.
THE GOOD HANDS PEOPLE
It turns out Tony Lippett is not the only receiver on the team. Michigan State has a group of talented pass catchers, so there is plenty of depth for Connor Cook. Lippett, a senior, just happens to have the most experience. Juniors Aaron Burbridge, DeAnthony Arnett and Macgarrett Kings Jr. possess star power. R.J. Shelton emerged in spring and looks to figure into the mix, and Keith Mumphery is a deep threat. The tight ends, green a season ago, could figure more heavily into the passing game.
VOTE OF CONFIDENCE
He may be the most unassuming head coach in college football, but people know him in the Big Ten. And this is not the “vote of confidence” you want to hear. What percentage of Michigan State fans approve of the job Mark Dantonio is doing five months after winning the Rose Bowl? According to one poll conducted this summer, 57 percent. Public Policy Polling released results this week of a statewide poll of 578 registered voters conducted June 26-29. Among the Michigan State fans who responded, 57 percent said they approved of the job Dantonio was doing, 3 percent said they disapproved and the other 40 percent responded “not sure.” Those numbers compare to a 68 percent approval rating and 4 percent disapproval in February 2012, following an 11-3 season and Outback Bowl win.
The Spartans are known for its solid and crafty defense, led by its coordinator, Pat Narduzzi. Following the Rose Bowl win over Penn State, it was thought Narduzzli may get a shot at the Penn State job. Narduzzi is still in East Lansing. Michigan State is losing a few key pieces to one of the best defenses in the nation. However, with Narduzzi on the sidelines, it’s hard to see the Spartans suffering too much on defense. With ends Shilique Calhoun and Marcus Rush, along with cornerback Trae Waynes, Michigan State’s defense should be dominant once again. It's probably asking too much for the 2014 unit to match last year's totals, but the Spartans will be among the best in the Big Ten.
HOME IS WHERE THE HEART IS
If the Spartans are going to make a run toward a Big Ten Title and a chance at a national title playoff invite, it starts at home. The schedule is quite favorable. The Spartans host Nebraska, Michigan and Ohio State – three of their toughest games for 2014. Road dates against Penn State and Oregon will be a huge challenge and potential games with playoff implications. Considering the Buckeyes and Wolverines visit Spartan Stadium, the path to the Big Ten East Division title should go through East Lansing.
TIES TO SABAN
At one point, Nick Saban was on East Lansing’s campus wearing green and white. When Saban arrived in East Lansing, Michigan prior to the 1995 season, MSU had not had a winning season since 1990, and the team was sanctioned by the NCAA for recruiting violations committed under his predecessor and former mentor, George Perles. He served as head coach from 1995-99. In 1999, Saban led the Spartans to a 9–2 season that included wins over Notre Dame, Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State. However, the two losses were routs at the hands of Purdue and Wisconsin. Following the final regular-season game against Penn State, Saban abruptly resigned to accept the head coaching position with LSU.