August 6, 2014 at 7:20 pm

Michigan State's Malik McDowell finds his comfort zone

East Lansing — On National Signing Day, Malik McDowell announced he intended to play for Michigan State in 2014.

Mom, however, wasn’t on the same page. In fact, Joya Crowe refused to sign her son’s letter of intent.

And that was that. Mother and son did not talk about it again until April 1, with the deadline to sign hours away.

“I wasn’t really thinking about it, but I knew my mom wasn’t going to take a year of football away from me,” McDowell said. “We just talked about it. That was first time we talked about it the whole time and I finally got her on board. She said, ‘Go get the papers.’ She signed the papers and we sent them in.”

McDowell recounted the story after practice Wednesday, the first in full pads for Michigan State. And it was a long way from that February day when there was so much up in the air about McDowell’s future.

He was a five-star defensive lineman from Southfield High with offers from virtually every major program in the country. Rated the top player in Michigan by many services, McDowell was deciding between Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State and Florida State.

McDowell sat at a table with classmates also signing their letters of intent when he announced he was heading to Michigan State. But there was no fanfare. His father, Greg McDowell was there, but there was nothing to sign. Crowe needed to provide her signature, but it wasn’t coming.

Plenty of speculation followed. Would McDowell enroll at Michigan State anyway? Would other coaches keep recruiting?

But for the 6-foot-6, 285-pound McDowell, the answer was simple.

“This is where I wanted to go so this is what I stuck with,” McDowell said of what he called the most stressful part of his life. “Either way it went I was going to come here.

“When I came here I felt at home. They just made me feel like a part of the team when I got here. Other places I went I wasn’t as comfortable.”

The fact the Spartans won the Rose Bowl didn’t hurt, but McDowell said ultimately that’s not what swayed him. He highlighted the family atmosphere and his admiration for coach Mark Dantonio as reasons he came to Michigan State.

“Coach Dantonio is a great coach, the type of coach I love,” McDowell said. “He’s a serious man, he’s a good person.”

Now, five practices into camp, McDowell is going about the business of being a difference-maker.

“Malik McDowell is a talent,” Dantonio said. “He’s learning things daily.”

What he is learning quickly is this is no longer high school. The speed is more than he could have imagined, and it didn’t take him long to understand how tough he has to be.

“When I met Jack Allen,” McDowell said when asked at what point he realized the difference. “That’s a different type of person right there. He’s the toughest person I’ve gone against. His physicality, nastiness, whatever you can think of, he’s got.”

McDowell is projected to play end but is working early in camp at nose tackle. With the injury suffered by junior Damon Knox, McDowell and fellow freshmen Enoch Smith and Craig Evans are making the most of their opportunity.

“They asked me where I’d rather play and I said I’d do whatever for the team,” said McDowell, who wants to play at about 290 pounds. “I don’t have a problem with it at all. I’ve just got to get a little stronger and I’ll be ready.”

Ready to start his Michigan State career, ready to put the drama of signing day in the past. That’s what McDowell is focused on now and the smiles come easily.

He is back on the field quickly proving why he was so sought after.

“I missed the game so much going through all that,” he said. “I’m happy to finally be back out here.”

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Freshman defensive lineman Malik McDowell (4) hits teammate Evan Jones during practice. / Dale G. Young / Detroit News