East Lansing — Shilique Calhoun sat at a high, elevated table, arms crossed, thoughts spinning.
He is three games, maybe four or five if things go exceptionally well, from leaving his college football career to Michigan State’s archives.
But this senior season did not arrive simply. Not as a matter of standard college chronology. All because Calhoun, an enormously athletic defensive end, 6-foot-5 and 252 pounds, could have been working this autumn in the NFL.
Instead, he chose to play one more year for the Spartans. He opted for another year of classes, of daybreak conditioning and weight-lifting, and trying to fit into a 23-year-old man’s overloaded life all the things athletics and college obligations require.
“I knew this was the place I wanted to be,” said Calhoun, wearing a short-sleeve white shirt with a “S” logo as he talked this week at Spartan Stadium’s media center. “I wanted another opportunity to play against big-time teams and really showcase my talents, and show what our team has. Because I know how great a players we have here, and I know how far we can go.”
Of course, how far Michigan State “can go” depends in great part about what happens Saturday at Columbus, Ohio, when it plays Ohio State. The Buckeyes are ranked second and 13-point favorites. It is expected, as much as expectations mean anything in sports, they will beat the Spartans and eventually play in the Big Ten championship game en route to a possible playoff ticket.
Michigan State is ranked ninth. It came within a 39-38 loss at Nebraska from making this weekend’s game at Ohio Stadium a duel between the unbeaten. The Spartans remain a dynamic team, in large part because of a defensive front that is one of America’s best.
NFL writers convinced
For this, all of this, Calhoun stayed in East Lansing. It has not been tapestry woven in the manner he had hoped. A crazy November night at Nebraska got in the way of his and a team’s ideal plans.
But he will finish what he stayed to complete. And five months from now, when a talent show known as the NFL draft is held beneath hot lights in Chicago, Calhoun can expect to hear NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announce his name in the draft’s first round.
How early in the first round is unknown. But one national outlet, the “Talk of Fame” radio network, earlier this month polled a collection of NFL personnel heads. They placed Calhoun among five players who could go among the 2016 draft’s first five picks: Calhoun, Michigan State teammate and quarterback Connor Cook, Alabama linebacker Reggie Ragland, Ohio State offensive tackle Taylor Decker and Oregon defensive end DeForest Buckner.
“Calhoun is the prototypical NFL weak-side end, at 6-5, 250,” synopsized the “Talk of Fame,” which is hosted by three longtime NFL writers: Ron Borges of Boston, Clark Judge of New York and Rick Gosselin, a native of Detroit, who works in Dallas.
And yet, there are questions. They have nothing to do with Calhoun’s over-arching value to the Spartans (8.5 sacks, fourth-most in the Big Ten). But about his NFL ceiling.
The website NFLmocks.com shares in some common criticisms: can play too light, gets “tangled up” in blocks, waits for lanes to open up, etc. But in another breath the NFLmocks.com team prefers to talk about his football weaponry: “Size, speed, and strength — has every physical tool to become a dominant force in the NFL.”
Also, this hosanna to a New Jersey native and would-be basketball player Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio and his staff found and groomed after few schools had noticed: “Smart defender,” the website says of Calhoun.
None of these tributes or knocks seemed of much relevance to Calhoun during a Monday evening chat, via teleconference from East Lansing.
He was asked about his decision. How it had compared with his thoughts last winter when he decided he wanted another season in East Lansing.
“I think it’s been everything I expected,” said Calhoun, who was more interested in basketball at Middletown High than in football, until the school’s football coach finally won his sales pitch. “I figured there’d be some ups and downs, because that’s the game of football. But I think that what I love is the strengthened relations with the guys, how we’ve grown together. And if I’d have left, I wouldn’t have had a chance to see them grow.”
He was speaking of teammates: Malik McDowell, a gifted sophomore nose tackle; tackle Joel Heath; and Calhoun’s partner at defensive end, Lawrence Thomas.
What he doesn’t think about is what might have happened to Calhoun, and to his NFL fortunes, had it been he who was felled by one of those serious, or season-ending, injuries that have strafed the Spartans in 2015.
“Uh, yeah, there’s always the risk of injury whether you’re a senior or a freshman,” he said. “But it’s kind of something you don’t focus on. You go out and play and have a good time. And live in the moment.
“This is an opportunity that’s not given to every person in the world. It’s a gift just to be there.”
Calhoun might also have second-guessed his decision purely in terms of his NFL stock. Although projections are strong, he will be 24 on draft day, which is a bit more advanced than the NFL ideally prefers from athletes whose expiration date invariably arrives too soon for teams as well as for athletes.
A self-critique of his season isn’t as laudable as Calhoun might have liked. But keep in mind the guy doing the grading can be tough on himself.
“I would say a B-minus,” he said. “I’ve got to get off the ball and run to the ball more. But I’d give an A for my effort — and for my smile and for having fun.”
A perfect afternoon of “fun” in Calhoun’s world would be for Saturday to end up in a victory for Michigan State, with a certain senior defensive end having done his part-plus at a stadium where crowds and noise can be apocalyptic.
Calhoun genuinely likes the thought of making his first trip to Columbus. So do teammates who insist they’ve played extraordinary football on the road during the Dantonio era because they love the feeling of competing in a cauldron.
Accordingly, Calhoun sees his mission this week as being simple and incredibly appealing.
“To be more dominant,” he said. “To create havoc in the backfield. I want to be successful each and every game. But I want my team to rely on me — I want them to understand I’m going to do everything I can to make a play, and if I can’t, then I’m going to rely on someone else to play that play.”
Which is, he said, all a matter of honoring that single most hallowed aspect of competitive sports: the team.
This Michigan State team isn’t bad at all. It hopes, in tandem with a star defensive end, to have gotten even better Saturday in what looms as the Big Ten’s single biggest game of 2015.