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East Lansing — It has been nearly four months, but Malik McDowell still has trouble shaking what happened in the College Football Playoff.

Michigan State was riding high after its Big Ten championship game victory over Iowa, and believed it could not only play with Alabama in the Cotton Bowl, but also was certain it could win and reach the national title game.

Instead, the Crimson Tide blew open a tight game in the second half and cruised to a 38-0 victory.

“It’s still on my mind,” the second-team All-Big Ten defensive tackle said. “I can’t really get over a 38-0 loss. ... It’s motivation to work harder so it won’t happen again.”

And if McDowell becomes the player he and Michigan State expect, the Spartans might get another shot. That’s because McDowell, entering his junior season, believes he can be the best defensive lineman in the country.

“I can’t lie,” McDowell said. “If you want it, if you ask for it, you’ve got to be willing to take on the pressure.”

With the likes of Shilique Calhoun and Lawrence Thomas off to the NFL, McDowell becomes the star of a young defensive line that expects little drop-off. Along with McDowell, Mark Dantonio and his staff are anticipating big things from end Demetrius Cooper, tackle Craig Evans and end Montez Sweat, who was suspended most of last season.

There also is experience with tackle Damon Knox back for his sixth year.

But it’s McDowell many expect to shine. He was a freshman All-American in 2014 and was unblockable at times last season as he recorded 13 tackles for loss, including 41/2 sacks.

“Remember, he was only a sophomore last year, so I think there’s a huge upside,” Dantonio said. “He knows what to do, he’ll be able to play at a high rate of speed. But just in terms of experience and just growing physically, and changing your body as you move forward just makes a big difference. ... I think he’s just scratching the surface.”

McDowell has played on the interior of the line his first two seasons, but has started seeing some work at end this spring. It’s the position he played in high school, and he expects to be used in several roles this season.

“I’ll play everything on the D-line,” McDowell said. “It’s a lot more complicated than the inside at nose guard because I just go straight. At D-end it’s a whole lot of different things you do, so I’m just trying to get everything down.”

As he continues to improve on the field, McDowell is working on becoming a complete player off the field.

“Because of his experience, he played 600 snaps for us last year, that’s necessary,” defensive line coach Ron Burton said. “He can lead by example and that’s what he’s doing. His voice is starting to pick up in the room also because he understands the defense.”

So far, his actions have McDowell on pace to be the dominant player he and others expect him to become. Athlon Sports ranked him the No. 4 player in the Big Ten entering this spring, and ESPN.com says he’s Michigan State’s best player.

Until the season begins, however, McDowell still will have Alabama on his mind.

“It was a big help,” McDowell said of the Cotton Bowl. “Their O-line was real good. I had to maneuver my way, change up a couple ways how I played, and it showed me different things I need to do to improve my game, just from that game right there.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/mattcharboneau

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