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East Lansing – Malik McDowell was a freshman All-American last season, but if you ask the Michigan State defensive lineman, what he showed in his first season with the Spartans doesn't begin to scratch the surface.

In fact, heading into the final week of his first spring practice, he's convinced he's already progressed well beyond the player most saw through his first 13 career games.

"This year's Malik McDowell and last year's Malik McDowell are two different people," the 6-foot-6, 285-pound sophomore-to-be said this week. "Trust me. Two different people."

That bodes well for a Michigan State defense that last year finished eighth in the nation in total defense and first in rushing defense. It also has a defensive line that sophomore Demetrius Cooper said last week could be "unstoppable."

With Shilique Calhoun back for his senior year along with fellow seniors Lawrence Thomas and Joel Heath, the Spartans have plenty of experience. But the depth is impressive, too, led by McDowell and senior Damon Knox, as well as a group of freshmen that redshirted last season, including Montez Sweat and Enoch Smith Jr.

And many of those players can play different positions.

"It's ridiculous," said McDowell, who had three tackles and an interception in Saturday's scrimmage. "We can all play every position on the D-line. I can move out to end, LT can move out to end. Shilique can actually move inside. It's crazy how good we are."

McDowell will be expected to play a bigger role in how good that unit will be this fall and his first season was a pretty good start for the five-star recruit out of Southfield. He came to Michigan State will plenty of expectations and played in all 13 games in 2014.

He finished the season with 15 tackles, including 4.5 for losses and 1.5 sacks while earning the start in the Cotton Bowl victory over Baylor. He recorded a 1-yard tackle for loss against the Bears, a performance that followed recording his first full sack in the regular-season finale at Penn State.

But McDowell says his understanding of the defense is far superior to what it was when the season ended and that hasn't gone unnoticed.

"He's understanding the defense, understanding where his help is and understanding where he needs to be, where he fits in the defensive scheme," Calhoun said. "I feel like he's opened his eyes more to, 'OK, it's not just me out here it's all of us out here. We're all playing as a unit and we all fit in a certain place.' More and more as spring ball goes on you see him starting to realize that and understand where he needs to fit, how he needs to work with everyone to accomplish a certain goal.

"He's definitely progressed and he's grown up. I would say he's definitely matured through spring ball."

McDowell says a lot of the reason he has become a better player is improved technique and improved strength, and he said he's also buying into the direction provided from defensive line coach Ron Burton.

But that's not the only coaching McDowell is receiving. He has the benefit of going against All-Big Ten center Jack Allen on a daily basis, a battle he never got the better of last season but is winning his share now.

"It's not just a one-way street anymore," McDowell said. "It's more back and forth."

The two talk after most plays, the young player soaking up as much knowledge as he can. McDowell also hears from offensive line coach Mark Staten on how best to attack his players.

"These are my coaches that really coach me up," McDowell explained. "Coach Burton, Jack Allen and coach Staten. Those are my favorite coaches. Coach Staten literally tells me how to beat his offensive linemen. And Jack will tell me whenever I mess up, what I did wrong."

McDowell is also realizing how he can physically beat his opponent.

"My arms are a lot longer than his," McDowell said of his matchup with Allen. "He's a low puncher, so grab his hand before he can get it up on you. He's got the strongest grip on the team, so that's one I use a lot, get off him and flip my hips."

Michigan State continues spring practice on Tuesday and things conclude next Saturday with the spring game at 2 p.m. at Spartan Stadium. The teams will split into Green and White teams with the seniors drafting squads on Wednesday.

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/mattcharboneau

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