Shilique Calhoun on MSU's defense: 'We can be as good as we want to be.' (Jonathan Daniel / Getty Images)
East Lansing – Michigan State defensive end Shilique Calhoun has never been one to hold back his feelings.
The boisterous sophomore is not only good at making plays, he's as comfortable as any when it comes to talking about the game, and more specifically, Michigan State's defense.
Already the No. 1 unit in the nation, Calhoun is convinced there is plenty more ahead for the MSU defenders.
"We haven't reached our potential yet, but we have the opportunity to get there," he said. "We just have to take the coaching and understand it."
And what happens if the Spartans reach that potential?
"That is a scary sight," Calhoun said. "I feel like … I can't even explain it. It might be zero rushing yards and the passing yards would be zero, also. If we do what we need to do, there is not team that can beat us on defense. No team can beat us on defense."
While the prediction of zero offensive output is a bit of an exaggeration, Calhoun isn't far off when it comes to there being many teams that can solve the Michigan State defense. Even in Michigan State's one loss – a 17-13 setback at Notre Dame – the Irish picked up seven of their 12 first downs by penalty and were held to their lowest amount of total yards since head coach Brian Kelly took over.
Indiana has done the best job at solving the Spartans, but two of the Hoosiers' scores in last week's game were set up by turnovers deep in Michigan State territory.
"We can be as good as we want to be," said Calhoun, who has 5.5 tackles for loss, three sacks and 13 quarterback hurries. "The sky is the limit for us, the sky is the limit for anyone and if feel like we have a very good opportunity this year. We have a lot of older guys that are leading us with a couple of younger guys out there."
One younger guy that appears close to getting back on field is sophomore Lawrence Thomas. He was moved from fullback to defensive tackle in the spring but has been out with an injury until the past week or two. Thomas has been moved to defensive end and coach Mark Dantonio said this week he hopes Thomas will play this week against Purdue.
Calhoun is excited to get Thomas back on the field.
"I love having him back, he's one of my brothers," Calhoun said. "I have a strong vibe with him whenever we're on the field together. He's a big guy who's 290 pounds but plays like he's 240. He's fast off the ball and good with his hands. Having him back gives us an extra boost. He's part of my class and it's a nasty duo when we are on the field together."
Thomas admitted it was tough sitting out but never questioned he get his chance, and he's ready to prove it.
"I can do a lot," Thomas said. "I can help create more havoc in the backfield, get more sacks. We are a good defense, and I feel like I'm another piece added to the puzzle."
Punt return issues
Michigan State has had its issues returning punts. Andre Sims Jr. had a fumble early in the season that led to a score and Macgarrett Kings Jr. has fumbled in each of the past two weeks. Against Indiana, his fumble led to a Hoosiers' touchdown.
While Kings has provided some spark to the return game, securing the ball is the primary goal at this point of the season.
"It's partially harping on technique and focusing on every single play," special teams coordinator Mike Tressel said. "Especially with a young kid. You need to have quiet feet, you need to be technically sound and camp under that football every single time.
"But we're trying to do more things in terms of having people run down on them as they are catching the ball and forcing them to run the gauntlet, different things to put more stress in their lives. It really comes down to, Macgarrett has plenty of skill where he should never have to be catching the ball (high). That's not having attention to detail every rep. Once he understands that, he'll be better off."
Tressel said defensive back Darqueze Dennard works periodically in practice returning punts but the position he plays makes it hard.
"You get tired going from corner and pressing guys man to man," Tressel said. "That's a lot of running. We don't want a guy back there huffing and puffing and the return comes after the defense has a stop and he probably just covered three straight go routes. We have to consider that."