MSU defensive linemen relish opportunity at combine

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Indianapolis — On Thursday night in Indianapolis, Shilique Calhoun, Lawrence Thomas and Joel Heath were all hanging out again.

The three Michigan State defensive linemen were together again for the NFL combine, which just happens to be taking place in a building the trio has enjoyed its share of success — Lucas Oil Stadium.

“Yeah, we’ve got a lot of history in this building,” Thomas said Friday. “We feel like we’re at home.”

The memories have mostly all been positive for the defensive linemen, who were part of three Big Ten championship games in their careers, all played in Indianapolis. They were redshirts in 2011 when Michigan State lost a heartbreaker to Wisconsin, but each played key roles in victories in 2013 and 2015.

The victory over Ohio State in 2013 sent Michigan State to the Rose Bowl, and last season’s victory over Iowa gave it a spot in the College Football Playoffs.

As they spend most of this week showcasing their skills to NFL personnel, they did get a little time to reconnect.

“I got in yesterday and me, (Joel), Shilique, we chopped it up a lot,” Thomas said. “And we’ve been talking and just kicking it, just basically soaking it all in. We just can’t wait to get out there on Sunday. It’s like our dreams are in the palm of our hand. It’s just crazy we’re all here. We all came in together in 2011, and to just all go out here on this big stage, it’s pretty amazing.”

The fact all three are at the combine is a bit amazing, especially for Thomas and Heath.

Heath (6-foot-6, 293 pounds) was the steady performer at defensive tackle that never garnered too much attention. He recorded career highs in tackles (31) and tackles for loss (5.5) last season and earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors from the media.

Thomas overcame injuries and position changes to record career highs in in tackles (38) and tackles for loss (5) while earning honorable mention All-Big Ten honors and securing a spot in the Senior Bowl.

“I always kept my head high,” Thomas said of his journey. “I’ve always got my faith, I always keep my faith high. So I never questioned it. My parents, they always told me to just, you know, follow my dreams and I just kept on doing it. I never let anything bring me down. So I’m here today and it’s a true blessing.”

Now that he’s here, Thomas intends to show NFL teams why he was such a coveted recruit when he came out of Detroit Renaissance. A linebacker then, Thomas played at fullback in 2012 before switching over to defensive line. He played mostly tackle his sophomore and junior years before playing end last season.

He said most teams he’s talked to already mention his versatility, but he hopes to enhance that perception with his performance this weekend.

“I can play multiple positions on the defensive line,” he said. “I’m pretty fast to be as big as I am. I’m a versatile guy that can get after it. I can play offense or defense. I just bring a lot of upside to the table, a lot of value to the table.”

Thomas said he’s talked to nearly every NFL team and most see him playing end in a 3-4. Thomas, however, also has the ability to play end or tackle for teams that play a 4-3.

“That’s why they like me at the weight I’m at right now,” said Thomas, who weighs 286. “I can go outside and inside.”

Calhoun is the most highly touted of Michigan State’s defensive lineman. A three-time All-Big Ten first-teamer who was the conference’s top defensive lineman in 2013, Calhoun is projected as a late first-round or early second-round choice.

He had to opt out of the Senior Bowl because of a wrist injury that bothered him for much of the 2015 season, but he said he’s 100 percent healthy now. And he doesn’t think missing the Senior Bowl will hurt his draft status.

“It’s rough not to have the opportunity,” Calhoun said, “but I’ve been fortunate enough to play a lot of football games in my college career, so that was just one that I had to miss. But my wrist is doing very fine, look forward to competing on Sunday.”

Calhoun is coming off a senior season that included career-highs in sacks (10.5), tackles for loss (15) and quarterback hurries (18). His 10.5 sacks were third most in the Big Ten and 22nd in the FBS; they also ranked seventh most in a season at Michigan State.

But at 6-5 and 250 pounds, some teams have talked about Calhoun playing outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense, something Calhoun is open to giving a shot.

“I’d love the opportunity,” Calhoun said. “I mean I feel as if I could play tailback if they needed me to play there. So I’m not really worried where they put me on the field it’s just getting me on the field.”