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Calhoun ready to be a leader for Michigan State

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

East Lansing — Shilique Calhoun smiles when he thinks back to his freshman season. That was a different Calhoun, on a different Michigan State defensive line, on a different Spartans team.

Things have changed the last four years for the standout defensive end, as he's transformed from an undersized lineman to an All-Big Ten performer on the nation's top-ranked run defense.

At 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, the fifth-year senior has become a matchup nightmare for opposing linemen, but he hearkens back to the time when he wasn't quite as formidable.

"I was Bambi back then, a skinny guy who knew nothing about the game," Calhoun said Tuesday. "Now I have a lot more insight into how our defense works, where everyone fits and other teams' schemes. I've grown an idea of how I need to be better and what I need to do to help this team get to the next level."

As one of a collection of senior leaders, Calhoun started the first day of spring practice Tuesday with a goal of helping Michigan State exceed last season's 11-2 record.

With the first whistles of camp also came higher expectations on the veterans to take the mantle of leadership.

"We have a senior class that probably has as much experience as we've had since we've been here," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. "Just because you're becoming a senior doesn't mean you're necessarily going to lead. You have to be forced into those positions and that sort of just turns.

"These guys were sophomores when we won the Rose Bowl and now they have to assume a leadership position. I think it's a natural progression, but they have to work on it."

The seniors have been an integral part of the four straight bowl victories and Big Ten championship, so they've helped raise expectations gradually, putting Michigan State on a level with some of the top programs in the country.

The confidence can be seen in fifth-year senior quarterback Connor Cook, who has helped infuse the offense with a swagger, especially during his performance in the fourth quarter of the Cotton Bowl victory over Baylor.

"You can see that confidence in everyone," Cook said. "Coach Dantonio always harps on us being a confident group of guys — even if we didn't win. Before we won the Rose Bowl, we were always confident; we carry ourselves with that confident manner. Winning the Cotton Bowl ... winning the Rose Bowl and the Big Ten championship is obviously going to give you a boost of confidence."

With some key departures on both sides, Calhoun knows he has to be a more vocal leader. But his development also will include making more big plays himself and making things easier for the rest of the defense.

"We have a lot of young guys that are going to be touching the field this year," Calhoun said. "It will be key for the seniors that are on the field to speak up because they're going to be looking to those guys for help and to see what to do.

"The seniors will play a huge role … this will be our biggest senior leadership class that will contribute to our success."

Another senior, Lawrence Thomas, will be a centerpiece on the defensive line, making the move to end opposite Calhoun on the depth chart.

Thomas has been one of the most versatile players, playing linebacker and along the line, so making another move to help the team's depth isn't beyond his abilities.

"I think of him as a hybrid," Calhoun said. "He can play linebacker, defensive end, fullback, tailback … I think of him very highly because he's a class act."