This is the fifth in a series of 2014 Michigan State Football previews, looking at the positions on the team in no particular order. Previously: special teams, tight ends, cornerbacks, running backs.
If there was one area where Michigan State drastically improved statistically on defense from 2012 to 2013, it was pressuring the quarterback. Although quarterback hurries can be a nebulous stat, the Spartans had drastically more hurries in 2013 (66) then they had in 2012 (34). This increase in defensive pressure can also be seen in an increase in sacks in 2013 (32) than 2012 (20).
This improved defensive pressure can be attributed in part to the defensive line. While Marcus Rush has been a mainstay at one end position for a few seasons, the emergence of Shilique Calhoun was a big reason for the Spartans' run to the Rose Bowl last season, scoring points when the offense couldn't, wouldn't, and didn't.
Once again Calhoun and Rush will man the edges of the Spartan front four, and with back-up end Denzel Drone's graduation last year, MSU will need backups to learn the position for when Rush does leave, and for when Calhoun most likely leaves after this season. Here's a look at your 2014 Spartan defensive ends.
Shilique Calhoun - R-Jr. - 6'5", 256 lbs.
Mark Dantonio is developing a knack for turning lanky, underweight players into world destroyers. Calhoun was 230 lbs. when Dantonio grabbed him out of Middletown, NJ. Three seasons and 25 pounds later, Calhoun was not only one of the most important defensive contributors last season, but on offense as well:
You have now seen the only notable moment from the Purdue game last season.
Fun fact - MSU could've won two of its games last season based on offensive production from Calhoun alone. That's not all he brings though. His 7.5 sacks, 18 QB hurries, four fumble recoveries, and two forced fumbles were all team highs. He was the Big Ten defensive lineman of the year last year and a second-team All-American.
Now a captain for your 2014 Spartans, he'll look to take a more involved leadership role on and off the field:
Calhoun said his home in Middletown, New Jersey, is too far away for a quick visit - "It's not like it's just around the corner" - and will instead spend much of his free time in the film room studying Jacksonville State.
"I try to lead from behind and from the front," he explained. "Sometimes, you've got to let the young guys step up and see what they have and let them go, and then correct them. You don't want to be on their case at first because you don't know what they can or can't do.
"(Being yourself) is the best thing for these guys. They want you to be you. Act the way that you act. Don't try to be extra-aggressive because you now have the title. They want you to be the same person you were before you were elected. I feel like that's very important for this team because that's what brought us to where we are - being ourselves and not someone we aren't."
Marcus Rush - R-Sr. - 6'3", 251 lbs.
Death. Taxes. Marcus Rush getting at least seven tackles for a loss each season. All of these are constants, as Rush has recorded at least 7.5 tackles for a loss in each of his three seasons, while racking up a string of 31 straight starts that was finally broken when the Spartans visited Iowa last season.
In his last season in East Lansing, Rush can make his mark. If he records at least 2.5 sacks this season he'll be in the top 10 of Spartan players in that stat, edging ahead of Jonal Saint-Dic, Dimitrius Underwood, and Greg Taplin.
Demetrius Cooper - R-Fr. - 6'5", 246 lbs.
At 210 lbs. when he arrived at MSU in the fall of 2013, Cooper was another Spartan defensive end that needed to gain weight. And gain weight he did:
"Every time I stepped on the scale, 222, 224, 228, it just kept going up,'' Cooper said. "By the end of winter conditioning, I was at 240.''
And bigger has not meant slower, Cooper said.
"I actually got faster, ran a faster 40, jumped a higher vertical,'' Cooper said. "I ran 4.6 (seconds) in the 40 (-yard dash) and I first jumped a 30 (-inch vertical) and then a 33 after.''
As one of the second-stringers at defensive end, he will definitely see the field this season.
Lawrence Thomas - R-Jr. - 6'4", 309 lbs.
While Thomas is seeing a lot of reps at defensive tackle during practice, he is listed as the other second-string defensive end, and with freshmen Malik McDowell and Enoch Smith Jr. also impressing at defensive tackle, I'm going to make an educated guess and say that Thomas sees most of his time on the field at the end.
Thomas was one of the best recruits anywhere in the 2011 class, with many sites ranking him as one of the top 30 high school players in the nation. Injuries have derailed good chunks of his Spartan career, and he knows he has a lot to live up to:
"It’s extremely hard," Thomas said of the hype and the backlash, both magnified by social media. "Especially in my situation, how I was recruited, the injuries, so many people waiting on me for me to show what I can do. But I knew my time was gonna come at some point."
While there might be some flux in the Spartan defensive end corps, I would guess that Calhoun, Rush, and Cooper see the most time, with Thomas eventually seeing more time at defensive tackle. Someone will emerge to be the other backup defensive end, and we'll know a lot more when the depth chart comes out for Jacksonville State.