June 16, 2014 at 2:19 pm

Mark Dantonio: Michigan State freshman class 'pretty special'

Five-star commit Malik McDowell is a good bet to see game action in his freshman season at Michigan State. (Daniel Mears / Detroit News)

East Lansing — Mark Dantonio has always said the best players will play.

And in his seven seasons as football coach at Michigan State, that has meant playing true freshmen. Oftentimes, it was out of pure necessity, whether it be through a thin roster that was inherited when he took over in 2007 or because of injury.

But as the 2014 season draws near, the Spartans might find themselves in a position where some of the 22 first-year players are just too good to keep on the sideline.

“We’ve got some freshmen that will come in and do some things because it’s a pretty special freshman class,” Dantonio said on Monday.

Only four true freshmen saw the field as Michigan State won 13 games in 2013 — kicker Michael Geiger, running back Delton Williams, wide receiver R.J. Shelton and cornerback Darian Hicks.

This season, it appears the most likely place to see true freshmen will be on defense, specifically along the defensive line. Five-star defensive end Malik McDowell will be on campus when practice opens in early August as well four-star defensive tackles Enoch Smith Jr. and Craig Evans. And with a pair of starters gone, the opportunity should be there for playing time.

“The one thing about playing defensive line is you can move them in and out, you can roll them in and out,” Dantonio said. “And so they can go in there and they can play two or three plays and then get out. … But it’s gonna depend on things like can they stay healthy in camp? Can they pick up system?

“They come very highly sought-after, and now they’re here and there’s a change. You’re playing against guys that bench press 400 pounds and there is a change.”

While the rotation might be tougher to crack on the end where the likes of Shilique Calhoun and Marcus Rush are backed up by promising players like Demetrius Cooper and Lawrence Thomas, there could be more opportunity inside with starters Tyler Hoover and Micajah Reynolds graduated.

“We’ll see how that all shakes out,” Dantonio said. “But I would think that Malik, I’m not going to talk about every guy, but guys like Craig Evans or Enoch, those guys are very good players.”