July 30, 2014 at 1:00 am

Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun feels fine in the spotlight

MSU's Shilique Calhoun on upcoming season
MSU's Shilique Calhoun on upcoming season: MSU defensive end talks at Big Ten Media Days

Chicago — A giant ballroom at the Hilton Chicago was buzzing Tuesday morning.

From one side to the other, players and coaches were being asked every manner of question from the assembled media, from their thoughts on the College Football Playoff to who has the ugliest uniforms.

And as hard as it is to stand out, there was one corner where laughter was almost as common as coaching cliché — that was the table surrounding Michigan State’s Shilique Calhoun.

If ever there was a player better suited to wow the media, that person might never have come across Calhoun. The junior defensive end, decked out in a black suit with a sharp bow tie, had people hanging on his every word.

He transitioned between the serious — getting his team back to the Big Ten title game — and not so serious — the team’s theme song this year or who the best basketball players are on the football team.

He did it with the ease of a performer on the big stage.

“He’d be on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ I’m sure,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “He’s a fun guy to be around, very enthusiastic.

“He (is) energetic, makes his teammates appreciate him. (But) don’t let that fool you. When it comes down to practice time, he’s extremely diligent, he brings enthusiasm with him.”

And that is the reason Calhoun finds himself the center of attention with the season a few short weeks from beginning.

As engaging as he is, as much fun as he likes to have, the stage he truly strives to perform on doesn’t come with a microphone and a laughing crowd. For Calhoun, being the best on the field is anything but funny.

“We’re trying to win games, not fans,” he said bluntly when asked about Michigan State’s perception around the Big Ten and the nation.

Calhoun already has played a big role in the Spartans winning plenty of games. During last season’s 13 victories that included the Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl win, Calhoun had 14 tackles for loss, including 7.5 sacks, and scored three touchdowns (the first two weeks of the season). He finished as the Big Ten’s top defensive lineman and enters his junior season with virtually everyone calling him the conference’s best defensive player.

“Guys that come to this here and guys that you are interviewing all of the time are good players,” Dantonio said. “They are not being interviewed because they are good jokers.”

There’s no doubt Calhoun fits that bill.

While he was busy holding court, safety Kurtis Drummond was told how Calhoun said it was Drummond who was the real ringleader of the Spartans. Drummond simply laughed, looked back at his teammate, and shook his head.

“I think we know truth about that one,” Drummond said, not able to hold back his laugh.

But that’s Calhoun’s style. To him, it’s fun to win and it’s fun to work hard. He doesn’t see it any other way.

“Complacency is the farthest thing from my mind,” Calhoun said. “I’m just competitive. I never go to practice thinking I can let anyone win. It doesn’t matter what we do. We could be walking. I want to walk faster than them.”

Calhoun said he’s not sure how he became so competitive, but he’s pretty certain it had something to do with having two older brothers.

“They definitely took care of me outside the house,” Calhoun said. “But when we stepped back in the house, it was mayhem.”

It was likely that mayhem that made Calhoun such a good athlete in Middletown, N.J. But it’s not like he was a household name as a recruit. Calhoun admitted he thought his future was in the NBA, and being from New Jersey he thought Rutgers was the epitome of college football.

“I didn’t even know there was an Alabama out there,” he said. “I swear.”

He even admitted he didn’t know the difference between Michigan State and Michigan.

“I just thought you played the game and they’ll find you,” Calhoun said. “I was lucky enough to have exactly who needed to find me, find me.”

That, of course, was Dantonio.

Four years later, Calhoun is the leader of one of the nation’s best defenses. He has, as he said, hardly become complacent, however. He regularly studies the pass-rushing techniques of NFL stars and worked in the offseason to get better at holding his gap and stopping the run.

But he also emphasizes that getting better and winning individual awards is simply a means toward team success.

“I’ve worked hard to get where I’m at as a player,” he said. “But I didn’t have an amazing year. I just had a pretty good year (in 2013). We have to compete every day if we want a shot at a championship.”

And just as quickly as he became serious about his team’s future, he was asked who had the best bow tie in the room. Calhoun simply put his arms out, shook his head and pointed at himself.

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com
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Shilique Calhoun scored three touchdowns his first two games last season, including a 56-yard interception return against South Florida. / Dale G. Young / Detroit News