MSU ‘Freak’ Shilique Calhoun wants 20 sacks

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
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East Lansing — Shilique Calhoun is a freak.

The Michigan State defensive end has heard the description plenty of times over the past few seasons. It began when he was named the Big Ten’s top defensive lineman in 2013 and was being used again after last week’s performance against Central Michigan when he had three tackles for loss, including 2.5 sacks, and blocked a field goal.

“The guy is a great player and a freakish athlete,” Central Michigan coach John Bonamego said.

The numbers back up the belief Calhoun is great. He has 4.5 sacks already this season and is now sixth all-time in Michigan State history with 21. And the idea he is a freak is apt, as well.

At 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds with the speed and quickness of an outside linebacker, Calhoun has become accustomed to being called a freak. And he’s fine with it.

“Yeah, I hear that a lot,” Calhoun said. “I take it as a compliment. It’s kind of one of those things that is unexplainable. It’s an athletic guy that’s just a playmaker.”

Becoming that playmaker was a process when Calhoun arrived at Michigan State in the fall of 2011. Then he was a skinny kid, barely carrying 215 pounds on his slender frame.

Detroit News predictions: Michigan State vs. Purdue

But the evolution into that freakish athlete was swift. By the time the 2012 season began, the redshirt freshman was pushing for playing time behind William Gholston. And when the Spartans reached the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl at the end of the year, Calhoun gave notice the defensive end position would be just fine, even with Gholston preparing to head for the NFL.

Calhoun had two tackles for loss, including a sack, as Michigan State rallied to beat TCU.

When 2013 arrived, so did Calhoun. He was a second-team All-American while compiling 7.5 sacks and 18 quarterback hurries. He also had four fumble recoveries, returning two for touchdowns in the first two weeks of the season.

He upped his sack total to eight in 2014 and was again a second-team All-American as Michigan State’s defense ranked in the top 10 for the fourth consecutive season, and just four games into his final season it appears there’s no stopping Calhoun.

“He had a big game last week and that’s exciting because we enter the Big Ten season and he’ll be ready to go,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “But he provides leadership for our football team, as well, and I’m very excited he’s back with us, obviously, but I think he’s an unselfish player.”

There was some question whether he would return for his senior season, but Calhoun eventually decided the NFL could wait.

His goal now is to get Michigan State to the College Football Playoff after the Spartans finished each of the last two seasons ranked in the top five in the nation.

Now ranked No. 2, Michigan State opens Big Ten play at noon Saturday against Purdue. And once again, Calhoun will have the attention of the other team.

“He’s a phenomenal, phenomenal rusher,” Purdue coach Darrell Hazell said. “He drops his shoulders better than anybody I’ve ever seen. He gets so low to the ground on those tackles and bends the edge, we have to know where he is every single time.”

How the Boilermakers attack Calhoun and the Michigan State defense will be interesting. Last season, Purdue scored 31 points in a loss to Michigan State and Hazell hasn’t hidden the fact he believes the Spartans can be exploited.

It’s something other teams are catching on to as the Spartans enter Saturday’s game ranked 76th in the nation in total defense. Neutralizing Calhoun hasn’t been the reason for that ranking, but Hazell will still give it a shot.

“He lines to the field, so that gives you a tip, so you’ve got to be able to do some things structurally to make him not just a pass rusher,” Hazell said. “He’s got to be able to play some wide things as well as play some misdirection things. You’ve got to slow him down somehow. He’s a great football player.”

Slowing him hasn’t worked for most teams, and it didn’t last week against Central Michigan, especially in the second half. That’s when the coaching staff realized blitzing wasn’t working and told Calhoun and the defensive line to pressure the quarterback with just four and sometimes three men.

“We challenged the defensive front that on third downs against this quarterback, we need to drop eight (in coverage),” co-defensive coordinator Mike Tressel said. “So you need to get three-man pressure. A lot of times, defensive linemen, the general mindset, the fallback is, ‘Well, that’s a bunch of crap. They can double-team every one of us.’ They didn’t think that way. They accepted the challenge.”

The Spartans finished with four sacks and hurried CMU quarterback Cooper Rush seven times.

But Calhoun insists he’s not feeling any more pressure to produce in order to compensate for a secondary that has had its share of problems through four games.

“I feel pressure because I want sacks, man,” Calhoun said. “I want like 20 sacks a season. That is my pressure point. I understand what this team can do and I have total respect and confidence in our DBs. I’m not worried about what people talk about, that’s gonna happen regardless if we’re the No. 1 defense in the nation or No. 150. You’re always gonna have criticism.

“The pressure for me is getting the sack numbers I want.”

Those are numbers Michigan State can live with.

Purdue at Michigan State

Kickoff: Noon, today, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing

TV/radio: ESPN2/WJR

Line: Michigan State is favored by 21.5 points

Series: Michigan State leads 34-28-3

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