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Spartans' O-line flush with pair of Jacks

Michigan State center Jack Allen owes teammate Jack Conklin a dinner. Conklin has the spot picked out: Capital Prime steakhouse in Lansing.

"It will be a little bit expensive," Conklin says. "Gotta make him pay up."

Conklin will soon dine on Allen's dime thanks to the competition the teammates had last season over who could register the most knockdowns. Allen played two fewer games than Conklin, but the left tackle's 104.5 knockdowns easily outpaced Allen's 80.

That wager was just one of the frequent head-to-head battles that the Spartans' pair of Jacks love to stage, whether that means a footrace during offseason conditioning or seeing who can give up fewer sacks. And it only makes them and everyone else around them better.

"They both have a tremendous competitive edge, and they're tough, and because of that we are tough in our room," Michigan State offensive line coach Mark Staten said. "It's fun, because the younger guys see that and they want to follow suit. They want to live up to that bar."

Allen and Conklin have helped raise the bar for an entire position group, one which not long ago was considered a sore spot in East Lansing.

As a junior last season, Allen was the only non-senior to be named a finalist for the Rimington Trophy, which goes to the country's top center, and he earned several All-America nods. Conklin, a fourth-year junior this season, has allowed only 2.5 sacks in 27 career games, and ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. has said Conklin could be the first tackle selected in next year's draft if he turns pro.

Michigan State hasn't had an offensive lineman get drafted since Chris Morris in 2006, and the last player to go in the first two rounds from that position was Flozell Adams in 1998. Now, the Spartans are flush with two potential All-Americans on the same line.

"I think we have the makings to be the best offensive line Michigan State has had in a long, long time and one of the best in the nation," Conklin said. "I think we'll be one of those elite offensive lines."

The group certainly reached that level in 2014, leading the way for one of the most balanced offenses in the country and giving up just 11 sacks, fourth fewest in the FBS. Allen and Conklin say the goal this year is to get that number down to single digits.

"You've got to set the standard high," Allen said, "or what's the point in even trying?"

Conklin's ability to protect Connor Cook's blind side -- he can vividly recall both sacks he allowed last year, against Maryland and Baylor -- has NFL scouts buzzing. But the guy who famously had zero FBS scholarship offers before the Spartans took a chance on him had little interest in leaving school after two years.

"I have more I want to do here," he said. "I want to win the Outland Trophy. I want to be a first-team All-American."

His own teammate may challenge him for the Outland honor, which would be nothing new. Allen said he and Conklin will sometimes talk during games about who has had the most knockdown blocks. They anxiously await Staten's Sunday meetings after each game to find out who had a better performance in the eyes of the coaches. After a recent scrimmage, Staten said, the two Jacks graded out at the exact same high score, which is difficult to do because it's a complicated numerical formula.

During winter conditioning, Conklin and Allen matched up multiple times to see who was faster in a variety of drills. The winner? That's matter of debate.

"I would say that I won the majority," Allen said, "but I'm interested to hear what he has to say about it."

"No, I would not give it to him," Conklin responds, indignantly. "I'd say I won most of them. But he's a hard-headed guy, so he might try to have a race after practice once he hears about this."

Maybe the only thing each Jack likes more than pushing one another is watching the other one play.

"He's such a gritty guy," Conklin says of Allen, who was a high school wrestling champ. "He's going to hit you every play, and even if he gets beat -- which he rarely does -- it's not going to affect him. It's going to drive him even more and he's going to keep coming, keep hitting you. That's what all offensive linemen strive for, to be that guy who's going to come off the ball and punch the guy over and over again until he quits, and that's what Jack is so good at."

"He's got such a good work ethic," Allen says of Conklin. "He's never going to take a play off. He likes to bury people. I like that."

Neither linemen is going to give up trying to outdo the other. Michigan State couldn't ask for a better draw than this pair of Jacks.