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2016 MSU Football Position Preview: Defensive Line

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Malik McDowell headlines a revamped group of pass rushers with some big cleats to fill

NCAA Football: Indiana at Michigan State
McDowell will look to set up shop in the opposing backfield early and often this season
Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

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Entering 2015, the biggest question facing the Spartans was how the defense would hold up after losing longtime defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi?

Injuries to key players like Vayante Copeland and Ed Davis made the answer a resounding "not great!” but one group that can’t be blamed for the slip in stinginess was the defensive line. Anchored by Shilique Calhoun, Malik McDowell and Lawrence Thomas, the maulers up front quieted the powerful running attacks of Michigan and Iowa and turned in a masterpiece against Ohio State.

Unfortunately, no unit was hit harder by attrition than the d-line. Seven, count ‘em, seven players from last year's roster are no longer on the team for a variety of reasons. To say the Spartans are faced with a tall task may be underselling the situation.

Luckily, there are plenty of capable reinforcements, led by one of the best players in all of the land in McDowell, chomping at the bit.

How does it all fit together? Great question. Let's speculate!

WHO’S GONE?

Big Ten Championship
Shilique made a lot of plays
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Graduates: Shilique Calhoun (drafted in the 3rd round by the Raiders) Lawrence Thomas (signed as an undrafted free agent with the Jets) Joel Heath (signed as an undrafted free agent with the Texans) Damon Knox (Retired)
Other reasons: Craig Evans (Kicked off team) Montez Sweat (Kicked off team) Cassius Peat (Transferred to Eastern Arizona JUCO)

Yikes, that’s a long list. The group lost four contributors -- three starters -- to graduation and another three to varying circumstances.

Cassius Peat is the most recent of the departures. Considering he was a former four star recruit playing a position of need there was a suspicious lack of chatter surrounding Peat. Everything came to light this week when it was revealed he was extremely homesick. Apparently the staff knew of his inevitable transfer and he is now much closer to home at Eastern Arizona JUCO where he can hopefully bounce back and carve out a nice career for himself.

Craig Evans and Montez Sweat are the most disappointing of the bunch as both were poised not only to contribute in 2016 but potentially — in Evans’ case almost definitely — start. Neither was able to live up to program expectations and thus both are finding new places to continue their college careers. Their departures are unfortunate for them and disappointing for the team, especially considering all of the other losses this group endured.

Damon Knox had the chance to apply for a sixth year of eligibility but surprisingly chose to pass on that opportunity, leaving MSU even thinner along the line.

The biggest losses are the three starters — Shilique Calhoun, Joel Heath and Lawrence Thomas — each of whom were critical members of the defensive line the past several seasons. All played important roles but none will be missed as much as Calhoun. Not only was Shilique one of the best on-field performers in MSU history — finishing his career ranking second all-time in sacks (27) and fourth in tackles for loss (44) — he was a mouthpiece for the program. Heck, he was even a captain! Not every great player can say that (NEVER-ENDING EYE ROLL).

This mass exodus has MSU calling on a whole bunch of new faces to contribute. The silver lining is that one of those faces belongs to a superstar.

MALIK AND..........?

Nebraska v Northwestern
Newcomer Kevin Williams
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
The “starting” group — Kevin Williams (Sr-6 — Graduate Transfer from Nebraska) Gabe Sherrod (Sr-5 — Graduate Transfer from Delaware State) Evan Jones (Sr-5) Demetrius Cooper (R-Jr) Malik McDowell (Jr) Raequan Williams (R-Fr)

Every conversation about the Spartan defensive line starts with McDowell. The former five star recruit enters this season as one of the best players not only on his team but in the entire nation.

NFL prognosticators almost unanimously peg him as a first round pick in the 2017 draft, should he declare. He fits the mold of recent defensive line prospects like Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner— ironically both former Oregon Ducks selected in the first round of the 2015 and 2016 NFL Drafts, respectively, by the San Francisco 49ers — and his ability to play anywhere on the line clearly intrigues NFL front offices.

McDowell isn’t backing away from the pressure. In fact, he seems determined to out-perform even the loftiest expectations. According to the junior himself, being a first rounder isn’t enough and in order to declare early for the 2017 Draft he would have to be “a top three pick”.

Whether you believe that statement or not, setting such high goals shows McDowell is confident in his ability and driven to be make the most of it. When you combine his size, skill set and determination you get an absolute monster, which it appears he is intent on being this year.

Aside from McDowell only one other member of this presumed rotation actually contributed for the Spartans a season ago. That was end Demetrius Cooper. The junior ranked second on team in sacks (five) as a reserve and will be called upon to be a consistent source of pressure this fall.

The final sure-fire starter (I know that's only three, I'll explain in a minute) is 6'4" 295-pound redshirt freshman Raequan Williams who seized the job after an impressive spring and has held on with an even more impressive fall camp. The Chef is one of the many Chicagoland recruits Dantonio has landed in the past few classes and will face a lot of single blocking lining up alongside McDowell. If he can make he most of those advantageous situations, look out.

Circling back to that whole final starting spot thing. The best way to describe the situation is fluid. Right now, there are five or six “co-starters” according to Dantonio. The three already covered as well as senior end Evan Jones and graduate transfers tackle Kevin Williams and end Gabe Sherrod.

Williams was a solid contributor at Nebraska but was nagged by injuries and positionally blocked by NFL talents in Vincent Valentine and Maliek Collns – both 3rd Round draft picks this year. If healthy, his experience should provide a major boost.

Sherrod comes from Delaware State where he changed positions several times but really hit his stride once he settled in at defensive end. The Big Ten is a new level of competition – he even said “Tight Ends block up here” – but Sherrod should provide much needed situational pass rush help.

Finally, there’s Jones. A solid run stuffer, Jones doesn’t bring a ton of flash but should help manufacture some nice depth. He’ll need to play well if he wants to hold off Sherrod or any of the freshman for too long.

All of that to say this, the starting group will be entirely dictated on where Malik lines up week in and week out. If he starts at end Williams will start at tackle. If he starts at tackle, either Jones or the Sherrod will get the nod at end.

Got it? Me neither.

A DEEP ROTATION

NCAA Football: Big Ten Championship-Iowa vs Michigan State
Bowers and Smith will face a lot of competition for playing time
Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

Robert Bowers (R-So) Enoch Smith (R-So) Kyonta Stallworth (R-Fr) Mike Panasiuk (Fr) Auston Robertson (Fr) Josh King (Fr) Naquan Jones (Fr)

I had to include another section for the rest of the linemen because there are many more beyond the aforementioned six. The group will be rounded out by at least three or four more players, if not more.

Sophomore Robert Bowers and redshirt sophomore Enoch Smith and redshirt freshmen Kyonta Stallworth will likely factor into the end and tackle rotations, as will at least a few true freshman from last year’s outstanding class. The surest bet of the greenbelly’s is Mike Panasiuk, a burly tackle who the coaches laud as one of the strongest freshman they’ve ever had.

Other four star freshman -- Auston Robertson, Josh King and Naquan Jones – all have the opportunity to crack the playing group. I’d wager that at least one, if not two of them end up playing a decent amount with the edge going to Robertson due to his positional versatility.

CAN POTENTIAL BECOME PRODUCTION?

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Ohio State
It’s Malik...again
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The defensive line mirrors the receiving corps: one proven star and a lot of highly talented but untested depth. Replacing more than half a dozen members of any position group is tough. This is no different.

Skeptics will point to the amount of turnover and say MSU is screwed. Replacing that many high caliber players at crucial positions in one offseason is impossible. Optimists will say as long as McDowell is around, this will be an elite unit. In all likelihood, the answer lies in the middle.

But you didn’t come here to see me hedge, so, I’ll say this unit is going to be closer to the optimist view than the pessimist.

McDowell is a bonafide superstar, there is functional, experienced depth with Kevin Williams and Sherrod, plus consecutive stacked recruiting classes have included Naquan Jones, King, Panasiuk, Robertson, Smith, Stallworth and Raequan Williams — all four star recruits according to Rivals.

These aren’t just names on a page, these are very talented players, most of whom could have played just about anywhere. Defensive line coach Ron Burton has worked magic with youngsters before but he’s never had this much talent to work with.

If the line is up to snuff, there’s no reason this cannot be a 2013 caliber defense. If they aren’t, the defense will suffer regardless of how good the back seven is. The upside is as high as it’s ever been but it’s up to the new guys to get there.