August 3, 2014 at 1:00 am

Shilique Calhoun just the start of athletic Michigan State defensive line, coach Mark Dantonio says

East Lansing — They have yet to play a down for Michigan State, but even after one practice, the excitement over the crop of new defensive linemen on campus has not waned one bit.

Coach Mark Dantonio said last week it was the best class of defensive linemen he has recruited, and after Saturday’s opening practice of preseason camp, he said it was clear — even without full equipment — that his defensive line is the most impressive group on the field.

“You can see that it’s the most talented group top to bottom,” Dantonio said, “and it’s the deepest group top to bottom that we’ve recruited here.”

Even with the news Saturday that junior defensive tackle Damon Knox will be sidelined for at least the next couple of weeks, it’s hard to argue with Dantonio’s assessment.

The Spartans already are established at end with junior Shilique Calhoun — the Big Ten’s reigning Defensive Lineman of the Year — and fifth-year senior Marcus Rush being backed up by up-and-coming redshirt freshman Demetrius Cooper. But throw in some returning depth along with some impressive true freshmen and the entire line is shaping up to be a solid group.

Junior Joel Heath likely will start at one tackle spot while Lawrence Thomas, who also has worked at end, could slide into the other starting spot left open by Knox’s injury. Junior Brandon Clemons will be in the mix to grab that position, as well.

But it’s the youngsters that are most intriguing. At the top of that list is five-star Malik McDowell, who likely will play at end and could become part of the rotation early in the season. He is joined by tackles Enoch Smith Jr. and Craig Evans — both four-star recruits — as well as the likes of tackle David Beedle and ends Robert Bowers and Montez Sweat. It has the makings of a solid core for the next several years.

“Malik McDowell (is) very quick, athletic,” Dantonio said. “Enoch Smith is very athletic. All those defensive linemen are really athletic guys. Craig Evans as well as David Beedle and Sweat and Bowers, all showed great athletic ability and I’m sort of looking at the freshmen and saying, ‘Can they catch up?’

“And there’s a lot going through their mind right now, and there’s a lot going through their legs. So, it’s going to take a special guy. I was impressed with those guys.”

True freshmen seeing the field hasn’t happened much for Michigan State in recent seasons. In fact, among this year’s seniors, only Taiwan Jones is a four-year player.

But defensive line isn’t the only place a freshman could see action this season. Dantonio again singled out defensive back Montae Nicholson on Saturday as well as running back Madre London.

“London obviously looks like a great player, as well,” Dantonio said, “but there’s a lot to learn.”

Michigan State continues preseason camp Sunday and likely will be in pads by Wednesday as it prepares to open the season Aug. 29 against Jacksonville State.

Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio watches linemen go through a drill during the first practice Saturday in East Lansing. / Dale G. Young / Detroit News