Calhoun's dual role: hit 'em, make 'em smile

Video: Shilique Calhoun (0:26)

Michigan State defensive end Shilique Calhoun talks about how the Spartans play with an edge. (0:26)

CHICAGO -- Shilique Calhoun is speechless, which is notable because, well, he is hardly ever speechless. He is flashing his trademark smile, though, a dead giveaway of how he feels about the beating Michigan State administered to Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner last year.

Six seconds pass, and he relents.

"I mean, you pretty much said it yourself," Calhoun tells the reporter, shaking his head. "I don't need to say much more. It's pretty much ... "

Are you impressed he stayed in the game?

"I am," Calhoun says. "I commend him for finishing the game and coming out and being a trouper."

That is about as brief as Calhoun gets, as the Spartans' dynamic defensive end took full advantage of the spotlight the Big Ten's two-day preseason media session offered. He held court with reporters for nearly two straight hours while wearing a bow tie. He interviewed Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah. He assessed his teammates' basketball talents, evaluating everything from the useful derriere of former Spartan Tyler Hoover to the vicious elbows of fellow lineman Joel Heath.

"You know who was freakishly, weirdly good? Max Bullough," Calhoun said of the graduated linebacker.

It was on the hardwood where Calhoun drew the most attention in high school. His mother, Cynthia Mimes, says a dream as a teenager about becoming an NFL player drove her son to the college gridiron. Michigan State is thankful for that after Calhoun's breakout 2013 campaign, which included 7.5 sacks, 14 tackles for loss, three touchdowns and countless laughs. The winner of the league's defensive lineman of the year award, Calhoun opted to return for his redshirt junior season following MSU's Rose Bowl triumph, sensing plenty of room for growth.

"He doesn't know anything about football," Mimes quipped. "He just knows [that] the coaches tell him to do this and do that and he did it. That's the way it is. Today he's still learning. He does what they tell him to do because he's a fast learner."

He has come a long way from his days as the under-recruited dual-sport star at Middletown North (N.J.) High -- back when, he confesses, he thought hometown Rutgers was "freakin' Alabama" and he thought Michigan and Michigan State were the same school.

Two wins against the Wolverines in Calhoun's three years in East Lansing -- and five since 2008 -- has eliminated any confusion, especially after a rout last year in which the Spartans sacked Gardner seven times and hurried him another five.

Mark Dantonio could tell from scout-team work his freshman year that Calhoun would be special, admitting the defensive end was a little quieter then. Asked whether that was for better or worse, he smiled: "Worse."

Calhoun has grown up and opened up significantly in recent years, a far cry from the senior who quit the prep basketball team in the middle of a game after an argument with his coach.

He knows he was wrong, and though he had no other real blemish growing up, he wasn't quite the character he is now, his mother insists.

Among the many trophies and clippings of Mimes' six kids on display in her Long Branch, N.J., home is a middle school-aged Shilique featured front and center on an old Sunday edition of the Asbury Park Press, whispering an answer in a spelling bee to his teacher. He was a constant complainer and, Mimes said, a sore loser. He would cry when he would lose a football game. He would cry when he would lose a card game. He would cry when he would lose in a video game.

Ultimately, his mother stepped in.

"I told him 'you're not allowed to play games anymore, because games are supposed to be fun,'" Mimes said. "You're not supposed to cry over it and be upset."

Another incident warranted tears as well, though this time it stemmed from tragedy and forced Calhoun out of his shell. A boy at his middle school had committed suicide, a result of bullying. Calhoun's mother says it made her son look at life differently, and he has vowed since to be more uplifting around others.

"If someone's having a bad day, if someone's not feeling too good, he could put a smile on their face," Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook said. "Anytime you have a guy like that in the locker room, [it's] just cause for a good time."

At media days, Calhoun insisted he knew how to tie his own bow tie. His mother said the attire was her idea, and that her 14-year-old son, Kaymar, is already a bow tie expert.

Calhoun joked that he grew up in a gated community. When asked later if he planned on making T-shirts boasting his defensive line's mantra -- "A.W.O.L.," or Animal Without A Leash -- he cracked that he is broke.

Reminded of the former comment about his upbringing, the ever-persuasive Calhoun -- in a manner only he could seemingly pull off -- rationalized that he cannot stay rich if he spends his money.

The 6-foot-4 Calhoun has filled out considerably as he enters Year 4 with the Spartans, from 218 pounds as a freshman to 256 now. On a white wall back home, his mother has a framed photo from each of his first three college seasons lined up from left to right, above his locker room nameplate from the Rose Bowl. Guests often remark about how much he has changed, and how quickly.

From a hoops-loving kid who didn't know a Spartan from a Wolverine, to the best player on the reigning Big Ten champion, Calhoun has grown into his personality and physique, now on the brink of fulfilling that fateful NFL dream all those years ago.