Spartan Red Zone: Defensive Line Assessment

This is the sixth in a series of assessments on each position for Michigan State football. To read about the Spartan offensive line, click here.

Andy Chmura: @andy_chmura

If you ever hear anyone talk about Michigan State’s defensive line, the words “Malik McDowell” will be the next phrase that comes out of their mouth nine times out of 10. But why is this the case? What makes McDowell so sensational, and what can we expect from the rest of the line?

Any line with McDowell on it is intimidating. This nose tackle is a nightmare for any opposing quarterback, lineman, running back or coach. He has a tremendous first step. He has a human wrecking-ball demeanor but is surprisingly light on his feet. McDowell is slippery. It is nearly impossible to stay in front of him, but even if linemen manage to do so, their next move will likely be on the ground.

McDowell is nearly impossible to neutralize. He controls the middle of the field and matches up well against almost any player in the nation. Watch for McDowell to achieve nothing less than monstrosity in 2016. Also expect him to make the All-American team and be a first round NFL draft pick if he chooses to leave after his junior year.

Another notable player on the line is defensive end Demetrius Cooper. In 2015, Cooper had the second-most sacks and fifth-most tackles for loss on MSU’s defense. The other defensive end slot will likely be gobbled up by fifth-year senior Evan Jones.

That said, watch out for true freshman Josh King to fight his way into rotation as well. He was ranked the No. 1 player in Illinois by the Detroit Free Press. Redshirt freshman Raequan Williams along with true freshman Mike Panasiuk will get into the mix as well behind Kevin Williams, the Nebraska transfer.

With the departure of Shilique Calhoun, Joel Heath and Lawrence Thomas, MSU’s defensive front faces an uphill climb in 2016. Still, this bunch may have the best combination of youth and talent on MSU’s roster. Give this unit time, and there is no telling what they will achieve.

McDowell claims that he will stay for his senior year unless he is a sure-fire top three pick in the draft. If this is the case, MSU’s defensive line will feast on pancakes in 2017. But for now, MSU’s defensive front will have a year for reloading and rebuilding.

Grade: B-


Brendan Wilner: @b_wilner16

The defensive line is young, but the talent is there. Led by Malik McDowell, the D-line will be a huge key for Michigan State’s success this season. What makes them so key for the defense and what will we expect out of them in 2016?

Malik McDowell is already being talked about as a top-5 pick in next year’s NFL Draft for many reasons. His athleticism allows for him to be a great pass rusher, and his ability to be quick on his feet along with his quick hands makes his harder for defenses to contain him. This season, McDowell should see some double teams, which opens the door for the other guys.

One of those other guys is Demetrius Cooper, who will be happy to see double teams on McDowell because he will feast on  one-on-one’s against the offensive line. Cooper is an experienced guy who should be able to have another good season on the line and potentially have a breakout season. Cooper and McDowell are both the anchors of the D-line, but they will need to be on the same page as everyone else.

The underclassmen on the defensive line will need to step it up and make plays when they can. Josh King and Auston Robertson should see some playing time this season. The Spartans’ defensive line is talented but young, which will make for an interesting season for them.

Grade: C


David Manion: @The_Manion1

There’s no question that this season’s defensive line has potential. The million dollar question, however, is this: Can stud Malik McDowell and company be just as efficient and productive as last year’s line after losing six contributors (three starters), including three-time All-American Shilique Calhoun?

The centerpiece of this fresh unit is McDowell. The superstar is a 6-foot-6, 280 pound beast who uses his overwhelming size and power to constantly be a disruptive force. The Southfield native drew in several double teams, which spurted Lawrence Thomas and Joel Heath free into the open. His most memorable highlight was his pick six in the season finale against Penn State.

The biggest dark horse candidate on the Michigan State defense is Demetrius Cooper. The junior will be looking to improve his 22 tackles and five sacks from last season, even notching one sack against Alabama’s NFL-caliber offensive line. Cooper made a living in the backfield with his speed and tenaciousness, as he specialized in beating his guy off of the edge.

McDowell and Cooper should be great mentors for the youngsters, teaching them proper technique and fundamentals. Both playmakers are very flexible by shifting around on the line thanks to their strong and versatile skillset. The dynamic duo can’t do it alone, however, which is why it’s crucial for senior starters Evan Jones and Kevin Williams to provide a spark early on.

I don’t believe MSU will be able to overcome the insurmountable losses of Calhoun, Thomas and Heath. Calhoun was arguably one of the most indispensable Spartans since Michigan State’s 2013 Rose Bowl season, evidenced by his dominant numbers (131 career tackles, 27 career sacks). With the opposing offensive line keying on veterans McDowell and Cooper, the new guys will get their opportunities to set the tone. Because of the plethora of youth and inexperience, expect this group to fall well short of the 37 sacks from 2015.

Grade: C


Matt Mika: @themattmika

The defensive line is going to be anchored by one of the best in the country in Malik McDowell. The monster will be a force in the middle and is going to be relied upon to stop the run as well as put pressure on the quarterback.

On the preseason depth chart McDowell was listed as the starting nose tackle. But his size, agility and speed allow him to play any position on the defensive line. His presence alone is a matchup problem for offenses. Teams will need to double team him which will be a nightmare for offensive coordinators, since the Spartans have linebackers who can blitz on the edge or up the middle.

These schemes will terrorize opposing quarterbacks and will allow the defensive backs to play more freely while being able to take more chances. When a defense can play more aggressive, it opens up the playbook and causes a lot of headaches.

The Spartans are without their vocal leader in Shilique Calhoun, but with McDowell and plenty of talent on the edges, Michigan State will create enough pressure for the rest of the defense to force turnovers.

However, the underclassmen will need to step up and make plays right out of the gate. That is an uncertainty since the Spartans will have to face a plethora of strong offensive lines this season.

Grade: C+