Now the attention turns to the defensive line, which is a group that is expected to be amongst the best in the nation.
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Key Departure: Micajah Reynolds
Reynolds, who started his Spartan career as a right guard on the offensive line, made the permanent switch to defensive line his junior season.
He became the starting nose tackle for Michigan State’s 4-3 defensive scheme last year, recording a career-high 37 tackles, 3.5 of those for a loss. He was named to the ESPN Big Ten All-Bowl Team after recording four tackles and two for a loss in the Rose Bowl game against Stanford.
Despite being undrafted, Reynolds was signed by the Miami Dolphins as a defensive tackle in late May.
Key Returner: Shilique Calhoun
Calhoun is the obvious choice here. After last season, where he was only a sophomore, he was named First-Team All-Big Ten, Second-Team All-American and the Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year.
He had 37 tackles, including 14 tackles for a loss and 7.5 sacks.
The New Jersey native also was tied for second in the FBS with four fumble recoveries and tied for the FBS lead with three defensive touchdowns. Calhoun burst onto the national scene with a fumble recovery for a touchdown against Western Michigan and a fumble recovery and interception, both returned for touchdowns, against South Florida in the first two games of last season.
Despite having a high NFL draft stock, Calhoun decided to return for his junior season where he is projected to be one of the best defensive players in the nation.
If there was one word to describe this year’s defensive line for the Spartans, the first that comes to mind is “stacked”.
Rush is the most experienced of this group. He has started 40 of his 41 career games and is expected to line up opposite Calhoun as the other defensive end. He is coming off a season where he recorded 30 tackles and a career-high five sacks.
Thomas, who as of now is Rush’s backup, is looking to finally live up to expectations. A former five-star recruit, the Detroit native has struggled with injury and position changes thus far. However, he appears to have finally settled at defensive end. His size, at 6-foot-3, 294 pounds, should make him a formidable force for opposing offensive lines.
Cooper was a relative unknown going into the spring game this year, but emerged as a potential star after flashing some serious athleticism. He is listed as Calhoun’s backup going into the season and has received many comparisons to Calhoun, offering similar size and speed off the edge.
Knox, who is set to replace Reynolds at nose tackle, had a promising 2013 season where he saw action in all 14 games. He recorded 22 tackles including 2.5 for a loss and has looked poised to take on a larger role this season during spring practice.
Heath, despite having a smaller role in 2013, is expected to start at defensive tackle this season. What he lacks in experience, he makes up for in size. At 6-foot-6, 289 pounds, Heath may be the most physically imposing force in this whole unit.
Preseason Grade: A+
This unit has it all. The freak athlete in Calhoun, the reliable four-year starter in Rush, exciting potential in Cooper and Heath and of course, great depth. This front four of Michigan State may be one of the best in the nation. Expect this group to wreak havoc on opposing teams’ offensive lines, helping to set up the rest of the defense for success.
Dan Tyler is the host of Spartan Red Zone for Impact Sports.
Photo: David Defever/Impact Sports