Mark Dantonio: “I think that Malik is a guy that is probably going to play.” (Dale G. Young / Detroit News)
East Lansing — Mark Dantonio didn’t exactly say it was set in stone, but it sure looks like freshman defensive tackle Malik McDowell will be on the field when Michigan State opens the season Aug. 29 against Jacksonville State.
“I think that Malik is a guy that is probably going to play,” Dantonio said Thursday as the Spartans broke preseason camp.
McDowell, the 6-foot-6, 286-pound standout from Southfield, has drawn plenty of praise throughout camp and hasn’t let a bizarre recruit journey affect his performance once on campus. And he is now one of several true freshmen who could crack the playing rotation this fall.
After going through a shortened scrimmage Thursday morning, the group of first-year defensive linemen — led by McDowell — continued to impress.
“You look at Craig Evans, who is another guy, and then maybe Enoch (Smith) and David Beedle,” Dantonio said. “All four of those guys are good football players. We just have to see how it plays out, whether the health issues and those types of things. Those guys are in the mix and they’ve played with the ones and they’ve played with the twos — all of them.”
McDowell came to Michigan State with the idea he would play end. But with a need at tackle, he was happy to make the move.
It appears it will pay off this season.
“They asked me where I’d rather play and I said I’d do whatever for the team,” McDowell said earlier in camp. “I don’t have a problem with it at all. I’ve just got to get a little stronger and I’ll be ready.”
McDowell comes with plenty of accolades, but Smith and Evans were highly sought-after in their own right.
But none will start, as juniors Joel Heath and Lawrence Thomas have solidified those spots. Thomas, in particular, has had an outstanding camp and has been compared to former Spartan Jerel Worthy.
“It’s crazy with guys like Worthy and L.T. and how athletic they are,” said guard Travis Jackson, who works against the tackles on a daily basis. “It’s like, ‘How do they move like that? They’re so fast.’ I’m an offensive lineman, so maybe it’s because I’m slower, but they are unbelievable athletes, and the potential we have on the defensive front is absolutely spectacular.”
The final scrimmage the Spartans went through might not have been the final factor in determining the starters, but it did likely cement players who will see the field.
“I think there are always opportunities for people,” Dantonio said. “Are they ones or are they twos or are they one-and-a-halves? The one-and-a-halves are going to play, just by the nature of the offenses with no huddles, and by the nature of how many people we play offensively.
“So we are going to try to get our football team ready so that we have ones, but do we have depth behind those? To do that you have to play your guys and you have to put them in positions where they have to succeed as a starter. And so we have done that with a number of players. It’s always been a positive.”
Dantonio did confirm Thursday that senior Taiwan Jones will be the starting middle linebacker. Jones is making the move from the outside and has been battling redshirt freshman Jon Reschke for most of camp.
The battle to replace Darqueze Dennard at cornerback is also settled as Dantonio said sophomore Darian Hicks will be the starter next week.
There’s no guarantee there won’t be changes to the starting lineup over the next few weeks, and while Dantonio was happy overall with preseason camp, he is expecting continued progress even as the season begins.
“I’m always looking for more,” he said. “I’m always looking for a little bit more, I think all of our coaches do that. We look for guys who aren’t making mental mistakes, we look for a little bit more effort, we look for a little more control when you’re playing out of control, look for a little bit more focus. I think that’s just the nature of what we do; you can always get better. We’re not there yet.
“We’re looking forward to next week and improving next week and having an opportunity to play on game day.”
Jacksonville State at Michigan State
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. Aug. 29, Spartan Stadium
Radio/TV: WJR 760/BTN, BTN2
Outlook: The Gamecocks were 11-4 in 2013 and scored 35.2 points per game.