Michigan State's best offensive player this season has been sophomore defensive end Shilique Calhoun. That sort of says it all about the Spartans' inept offense. But it also shows that a Spartans defense expected to be the best in the Big Ten might be even better than anyone thought.
Calhoun (6-feet-4, 250 pounds) has scored on two fumble returns and one interception return; no Spartans offensive player has scored more than twice (tailback Jeremy Langford has two rushing touchdowns).
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Calhoun scored on a fumble return in the opening victory over Western Michigan, then took back a fumble and an interception for scores this past Saturday in a victory over USF. Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi called Calhoun the team's "running back on defense" after the USF win.
Coaches were hopeful that this would be a breakout season for Calhoun, an excellent athlete (he averaged a double-double in basketball in high school in New Jersey). He played in all 13 games as a backup last season, flashing some signs of being a future star and finishing with six tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and five quarterback hurries.
But Michigan State coaches have been left disappointed by athletic defensive ends before, most notably by William Gholston; he never came close to living up to his hype. Gholston left after his junior season and was a fourth-round pick by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the 2013 NFL Draft. Gholston's season-highs were five sacks and five quarterback hurries. Calhoun already has four hurries this season to go along with one sack, two tackles for loss and the three TDs.
Coaches also have been impressed by his maturity, with coach Mark Dantonio telling the Lansing State Journal before the season that "you don't have to be a senior to be a great leader. Shilique Calhoun has grown into a great leader."
His early season performance has helped Calhoun overshadow cornerback Darqueze Dennard, strong safety Isaiah Lewis and linebackers Denicos Allen and Max Bullough. The Spartans also are getting solid performances from junior free safety Kurtis Drummond, junior linebacker Taiwan Jones and senior tackle Tyler Hoover. All that defensive talent means that even with the bad offense, the Spartans are a team that should be in the running for the Big Ten division title.
And if Calhoun can keep scoring at this clip ...
"Through camp we discussed being able to score on defense," Calhoun told reporters after the win over USF. "Even if our offense is good, even if they're doing great, we still wanted to make that another aspect of our game by being able to score on defense and being able to create touchdowns.
"We were very excited for the challenge and we were looking forward to it. To see it all play out after all that practice is just mind-blowing."