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Arlington, Texas — When you're a special talent, waiting 55 extra days seems simple. That's how long Michigan State waited in early 2014 to receive a signed national letter-of-intent from Malik McDowell.

The five-star defensive lineman from Southfield was the gem of coach Mark Dantonio's class that year, and when McDowell and his father, Greg, signed a paper during a ceremony at Southfield High on Feb. 5, it seemed he was headed to East Lansing.

However, it was all for show, because McDowell's mother, Joya Crowe, had no intention of signing the letter-of-intent. As her son's legal guardian, Crowe needed to sign for it to be official. But she didn't want her son to go to Michigan State. Ohio State and Michigan were also heavily recruiting McDowell, as well as a handful of other schools. She preferred he would go to someplace other than Michigan State.

But nearly two months later, on April 1, 2014, and less than an hour before the deadline to submit the signed letter-of-intent, it finally arrived at Michigan State.

"I think Malik will be on the field for us," Dantonio said the next day. "I just think he's too big and strong and fast."

Nearly two football seasons later, McDowell is on the field, all right, and he's been everything Dantonio and his staff expected him to be when they began recruiting him, first at Detroit Loyola and then Southfield.

Entering Thursday's Cotton Bowl matchup with Alabama, the 6-foot-6, 280-pound sophomore is a physical presence few teams have been able to handle. What he can do with his size and speed had teammate Joel Heath calling him "wiggly" and then laughing at the fact he used such an adjective.

Fellow defensive lineman Lawrence Thomas tried to come up with the best description before shaking his head, pausing, and then summing it up with maybe the best explanation.

"He's just a freak," Thomas said. "He's a God-gifted freak of nature."

That freak will be on display in the College Football Playoff semifinal, and odds are, he'll be spending plenty of time in the Crimson Tide backfield chasing down Heisman Trophy-winning running back Derrick Henry and making life miserable for quarterback Jake Coker.

As Michigan State's All-America center Jack Allen said, "He's been a difference-maker all season. I don't know why that would stop now."

He's been that, all right, collecting 12 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks this season while earning second-team All-Big Ten honors.

A difference-maker.

Yes, he's fast, strong, has long arms, and is even wiggly. But, essentially, he's a difference-maker on the football field — the guy the Spartans were so willing to hold a spot for.

CLOSE

MSU defensive lineman Joel Heath talks about teammate Malik McDowell.

He made a splash as a true freshman, playing in all 13 games last year and starting in the Cotton Bowl. He was named a freshman All-American, but he was playing on raw talent.

Entering 2015, things started to change. The freak with all the ability — whom Michigan State jumped through hoops to sign — started becoming a student of the game. He began asking questions, watching film, working on technique.

Heath, Thomas and senior Shilique Calhoun started tutoring McDowell on the finer points of playing on the defensive line.

"When he first came in, he was like a social misfit," Heath said. "Any freshman is coming into a new program. But he had his brothers, the older guys on the team, showing him how to do things right. This season, there has been tremendous growth as a person."

McDowell, in less than a year, is a budding star, proving his choice to come to Michigan State was the right one.

Calhoun gets more of the attention on Michigan State's defensive line, but McDowell is the player who can change games, even possibly at the next level.

"The consistency has stepped up, every single play going hard," co-defensive coordinator Mike Tressel said. "Last year, there was glimpse of a great player. This year, I think every down, you need to be prepared for him to be in your backfield."

Getting in the backfield on Thursday will be vital if Michigan State expects to advance to the national championship game. It's a challenge McDowell and his teammates relish, especially considering the fact they're facing the Heisman Trophy winner, a player almost no one in college football has stopped.

McDowell can't understand why.

"I think people are just scared of the fact he's 6-3 and 240 pounds," McDowell said.

Does that scare the Michigan State sophomore?

"Nah," he said, shaking his head.

After all, fear is usually what McDowell sees from those standing opposite him.

"I've seen fear in their eyes," McDowell said. "I don't get it. I put my socks on just like they do."

He's right, but few have the impact he does. And now he's having it on the biggest stage, in a national semifinal with a national championship two wins away.

It's what McDowell expected when he decided, after the 2014 Rose Bowl, that he wanted to be a Spartan. That team of 2013 convinced him he needed to be at Michigan State.

"That was a real big turning point for me," he said. "Everybody was doubting them and I don't like being doubted. I don't know why. They went to the Rose Bowl and people were still doubting them. And playing Ohio State, people were doubting them. They always came through, and I was like, that's probably the team for me."

It took longer to convince mom, but McDowell said their relationship is as strong as ever and both his parents will be at the game on Thursday.

They'll be there to watch their son and, possibly, watch him be the difference-maker in Michigan State's march to a national championship.

"I'm a winner and wherever I go I want to win," McDowell said. "I've just always felt like this was the team to do that with."

Cotton Bowl

Alabama vs. Michigan State

Kickoff: 8 p.m. Thursday, AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas

TV/radio: ESPN/WJR

Records: No. 2 Alabama 12-1, No. 3 Michigan State 12-1

Line: Alabama by 9.5

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