The Spartans defensive line is looking forward to making plays in the backfield once again, as they come off of another year of being one of the top lines in the nation. Being placed in the top 10 for the fourth consecutive time is no easy accomplishment, but if you watch these guys play it'll look like it. The Spartans are losing only one starting defensive lineman this year but will certainly be missed. Marcus Rush played opposite of Shilique Calhoun and held his own at the defensive end position.
Now a rookie outside linebacker for the 49ers, Rush recorded 53 starts, which is the most ever by a player in the Spartan Program. Rush also produced heavily within those starts, racking up 37.5 tackles for loss (seventh in the nation) and 18.5 sacks (seventh in the nation). Despite the huge loss in experience and play the Spartans in fact have enough talent to pick up where Rush left off.
The Spartans return three starters and five with starting experience to enter the 2015 campaign. Leading the group is fifth-year senior defensive end Shilique Calhoun, who gave offenses nightmares last year. Calhoun is a two-time first-team All-Big Ten selection, and when you put on the tape it shows. Calhoun can stuff the run and shut down the pass, by consistently playing hard nose football. In his third year as a starter Calhoun has let his stats do the talking, tallying 82 tackles, 29 tackles for a loss, with 16.5 sacks. The two-time second-team All-American raises chaos in the backfield displaying speed, strength, and a special skill for getting to the ball. With Calhoun's impressive gameplay, it will free up his teammates and encourage them to play at a higher level.
Starting opposite of Calhoun will be former nose tackle (now defensive end) Lawrence Thomas. Thomas made his presence known last season as a junior for the Spartans using his big body and strength to run through guards. Thomas has been a role player for the Spartans throughout his career, contributing at linebacker, fullback, defensive tackle, starting nose tackle, and now a full-time defensive end. This will be Thomas' second year starting, and final season as a Spartan so expect him to run with a non-stop motor at the defensive end position.
It seems like a game of musical chairs but in reality, this is a very special unit the Spartans have. With Rush gone, and Thomas replacing him, we turn into the interior of the line. Who will be plugging gaps and creating lanes for our linebackers? Well you don't have to look far at all, Joel Heath and Malik McDowell will be our go to guys. Heath started 12 games at defensive tackle as a junior and made waves in the interior. Heath finished with 29 tackles, five tackles for a loss, and 2.5 sacks. This year expect those numbers to increase as Heath has better experience but also developing talent around him. While Heath possesses great size and athleticism, expect him to continue to grow throughout this season.
Last but not least, true sophomore Malik McDowell will be the forefront runner at the nose tackle position. McDowell proved himself throughout his freshman year making plays consistently and it payed off when he started for the Spartans in the Cotton Bowl. McDowell finished with 15 tackles, 4.5 tackles for a loss, 1.5 sacks, and Freshman All-America honors from the Football Writers Association of America. McDowell has another season to make huge strides and show his dominance at the position, especially with a talented group of guys around him.
Red-shirt freshman Montez Sweat will be competing for playing time at defensive end behind Calhoun. The 6'6 230lb Sweat appeared in only two games last season before redshirting, and had four tackles with a half sack. Sweat still has time to grow into his body frame; his length on the outside should help him contain the edge for an aggressive Spartan defense.
This defensive line will be a scary sight for opposing offenses and coordinators. The Spartans will not lose their touch with Calhoun leading the unit, and the defense. With a line that demands in the trenches, expect the linebackers to not take so much of a beating from offensive lineman and Bullough to have a breakout year. Also the more pressure the Spartans apply with this talented line, the more turnovers you can expect the secondary to cause.