April 9, 2013
EAST LANSING, Mich. - Midway through spring practice, it's becoming clearer who will fill the two biggest holes on the Big Ten's No. 1 defense from the past two seasons.
The Spartans return seven starters from an elite unit that ranked No. 4 in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision in total defense in 2012. In fact, the Spartans, along with Alabama and Florida State, are the only three programs that have ranked in the FBS Top 10 the last two years in total defense, scoring defense and rushing defense.
Some of the key reasons for that success were due to the press coverage at cornerback provided by two-time first-team All-Big Ten selection Johnny Adams and the pass rushing abilities of the towering 6-7, 278-pound William Gholston.
With both Adams and Gholston now prepping for the NFL Draft at the end of the month, defensive end Shilique Calhoun (6-4, 248) and cornerback Trae Waynes (6-1, 178) - both rising sophomores - appear ready to make a seamless transition into the starting unit.
"I'm not going to try to fill his shoes," Calhoun said on the possibility of replacing Gholston on the defensive line. "I'm just going to try to work to the best of my ability to get better every day and try to make my team better. There is only one Will Gholston. I'm going to try to be Shilique Calhoun."
"I feel like I can play with the (first-team defense) and I just want to help them in any way that I can," remarked Waynes. "(Secondary coach Harlon Barnett) is always reminding me that the best player will play and everyone is fighting for your spot."
Calhoun and Waynes entered spring practice atop the depth chart at their respective positions after standout performances in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl victory over TCU. Spring practice has only reinforced those feelings by the coaching staff.
In the first scrimmage, Waynes posted a team-best nine stops and harassed the quarterback with two hurries while also breaking up a pass.
Senior quarterback Andrew Maxwell sees the same thing from Waynes, but from an offensive perspective.
"Trae Waynes has really been impressive this spring," said Maxwell, who has to go against Waynes in practice. "Not only can he cover really well, but he's also very physical and plays the run well. We're looking for him to become a big playmaker for us this year."
Calhoun also served notice in the scrimmage, making an impact with two tackles for loss, including a 6-yard sack. He played in all 13 games in a back-up role last season and tied for the team lead with five quarterback hurries in addition to his six tackles and two pass break-ups.
"Shilique is a big, quick and physical defensive end," said Dantonio. "He's a playmaker for us."
For all of Calhoun and Wayne's improvements during practice this spring, it was the actual game experience against the Horned Frogs that provided a real glimpse into the future of the ever-evolving but always tenacious Spartan defense.
Pressed into duty with Adams sidelined due to a toe injury, Waynes saw a majority of the snaps at cornerback in the bowl game and responded with a season-high three tackles, including a half sack in the fourth quarter. Calhoun also played his best game of the season, leading the Spartans with two tackles for loss. Both helped contribute in limiting TCU to just 16 points and 288 yards of total offense.
"It helped me a lot with the chemistry with the other guys," said Waynes on playing in the bowl game. "I was actually working with the starters in the bowl game as well. Just the comfort and the chemistry helps in spring ball a lot."
Waynes also has the luxury of asking advice from senior cornerback Darqueze Dennard, a first-team All-Big Ten honoree last season who will be entering his third year as a starter. Although Dennard is not participating in contact drills this spring as he recovers from a sports hernia, he has a watchful eye on Waynes.
"Even in the one-on-ones, (Darqueze) has been telling me the little things I wasn't doing and how to fix it and get better," said Waynes.
Every season, new starters must make their mark. Last year, the Spartans relied on a rotation at defensive tackle to replace All-American Jerel Worthy, and Kurtis Drummond took over for All-Big Ten safety Trenton Robinson. Michigan State will be looking for Calhoun and Waynes to step up this fall.
"It's new and it's something very different, I'll tell you that," Calhoun said of playing with the ones on defense. "Having Max (Bullough) take the leading role in the defense, you get inspired every time he talks. It's like, `OK, what do you want me to do Max? It's done; I'm going to do that.' It's great being out there with the first string guys, just knowing that they're by my side, I know that anything can be accomplished."