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Shilique Calhoun keeps Michigan State loose on the big stage

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Michigan State senior Shilique Calhoun gave a relatively tame interview at Tuesday’s media day for the College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic.

The three-time all-conference defensive end never left his podium to prank any of his teammates. He didn’t hijack any press conferences or offer up any of his teammates as masseurs, as he’s been known to do in the past. The Spartans’ resident relaxation therapist was still a 6-foot-4 stack of smiles, though.

“The people are so friendly. It’s definitely a change from New Jersey,” the Garden State native said. “I’ve gotten away from Jersey for five years now. They changed me. I was an angry little kid. My grandmother told me when I was little I used to just stare at people with my angry little scowl.”

The chatter in Dallas this week has largely been focused on the impression made by Alabama’s massive and intimidating defensive line. The leaders of that group have declared this week a business trip after maybe having a little too much fun at last year’s semifinal game in New Orleans. Michigan State’s defensive linemen are also the tone-setters for their team. They just go about it a little bit differently. If A'Shawn Robinson looks like the guy you’d expect to see checking IDs by a door at the end of a dark alley, then Calhoun would be the guy inside telling jokes on stage.

Calhoun is the undoubted leader of a defensive front that ranges in life experience from freshmen still figuring out life on a college campus to fifth-year senior Joel Heath, who spent his time after yesterday’s practice checking in with his wife (Heath got married this summer, but decided to hold off on a ceremony until the spring; Calhoun, of course, will give the toast at the reception) to make sure her flights to Dallas were still on schedule. What binds the group is their ability to laugh.

“The line is definitely the most immature group on the team,” redshirt freshman Craig Evans said Tuesday.

He started to explain further, but then lost his train of thought when defensive end Lawrence Thomas distracted him with a slow-motion version of the Running Man as he walked past. Both cracked up.

It’s enough to make you pity Ron Burton, the assistant coach tasked with trying to corral the defensive line and get them to focus. But maybe you should envy him instead. The Spartans' line has led the way in much of the past three seasons -- a stretch in which they are 5-1 against teams ranked in the Top 5. Their ability to play loose is an important part of that success.

A few days after telling a room full of reporters that he prepares for big games by forcing center Jack Allen to go from room to room offering his teammates back massages, Calhoun had one of the best games of his career against Iowa in the Big Ten championship game. He had two sacks and another tackle for loss to help the Spartans secure their spot in the College Football Playoff.

“It’s a fine line, but you have to skirt it,” Burton said. “[Calhoun] is the one in our room that keeps everyone on that line. He can garner attention, but can also make sure everyone is right where they need to be.”

Calhoun says he put off his NFL career for a year for two reasons: to help Michigan State win a national championship and to finish his degree. Now that he's on the cusp of possibly doing both, he says he views only one as really serious.

“This is a blessing, have fun with it,” Calhoun said about the Cotton Bowl experience. “This is not your life forever. Football isn’t going to be your life forever, so live in the moment. The academics? That’s actually life-or-death, the academics. If I get a bad grade, my mom might kill me.”

Calhoun’s only hint of a stunt this week came before he got to Dallas, when he pierced his nose. He said he did it to be like his mother, who also has a stud in one of her nostrils. That didn’t stop his teammates from getting a few laughs at his expense.

“Oh, you know he lost a couple manhood points with the nose ring,” Evans said.

“Yeah, definitely. It’s kind of weird,” Heath added. “I don’t give him too much grief. You just do you, what you want to do and how you want to do it.”

That’s always how Calhoun has operated at Michigan State. It’s not the attitude we’ve come to expect from the big, menacing men who make serious business out of the game they play, but so far it’s worked pretty well for him.