Michigan State defensive end Shilique Calhoun was having a bad practice on Tuesday evening. So bad that he apologized to teammates and coaches about his performance.
That only opened him up to some gentle razzing. More than one Spartan told Calhoun that night, "Don't worry about it. You're a Heisman hopeful, so you'll be just fine."
It's hard not to joke about Calhoun's absurdly good start to the 2013 season. The redshirt sophomore has scored three touchdowns in two games, including two in last week's win over South Florida. For that effort, he was named the FWAA/Bronko Nagurski national defensive player of the week. He has outscored the entire Michigan State offense and has found the end zone more often than all but four players in the Big Ten so far this season. He's even responsible for one more touchdown than Ohio State star Braxton Miller.
That has led to cracks about whether he can play quarterback for the Spartans. Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi called him a "running back on defense." And Calhoun stunningly appeared in ESPN.com's latest Heisman watch, gaining a fifth-place vote. Calhoun finds all the attention is a little bit strange, but he's taking his newfound fame in unselfish stride.
"I told my teammates that it's a credit to them," he said. "It wasn't me or my individual play; it was a credit to those guys for providing me with the plays they did.
"I think it was just lightning in a bottle. I happened to be at the right place at the right time. I guess God was looking down at me and saying, 'You know, you can have these three.'"
But Calhoun is not just some lucky stiff whom the ball happened to find. Michigan State has known for some time that he was a special athlete who just needed to get stronger, and he's beginning to live up to that potential in his first year as a starter.
The 6-foot-4 Calhoun arrived on campus weighing about 218 pounds. Now, he's listed at 250.
"You could see that he was a slippery guy that could accelerate and get off blocks," head coach Mark Dantonio said. "And he liked to play. What he lacked was an overall sense of power.
"He had the gifts, that we would see in practice, but he never really put it together on the field to be a dominant player. He was an OK player, sort of trying to find his way, trying to develop. Now, he's playing much more confidently, and when a guy plays confidently, he plays fast."
Speed and athleticism have never really been an issue for Calhoun, who grew up primarily focusing on basketball. He averaged 17 points and 10 rebounds his senior year at Middletown (N.J.) North High School before he walked off the team in the middle of a game in a dispute with his coach (an incident Calhoun says was dumb and immature but that he learned from). He had scholarship offers to play basketball at lower-level Division I schools like Monmouth.
"Basketball was mostly my life," he said. "When I woke up, I would go to the basketball court and work on my jumper, work on dunking. It was my first love and will always be one of my loves. If I get any free time, I'll still go shoot alone or play a pick-up game. You can never let go of that first love."
Calhoun said he realized late in high school that football provided a better future for him. East Coast schools like Boston College, Rutgers and Pitt recruited him, but Michigan State won out during his visit for the 2010 home game vs. Illinois. Calhoun remembers seeing Narduzzi jump on Trenton Robinson's back after Robinson intercepted Nathan Scheelhaase in the fourth quarter, drawing a penalty in the process. He said that showed him that the Spartans were a family.
What Michigan State saw in Calhoun was a lanky athlete who needed time in the weight room but could eventually fit its defensive system perfectly. Calhoun is the just latest example of the Spartans' success in finding two- or three-star recruits and developing them into defensive studs, usually after a redshirt year.
"Shilique was a recruited player, no doubt about it," Dantonio said. "Was he a national recruit? Probably not. Is he playing a a national level? Absolutely, yes."
Calhoun is the first to admit that he hasn't totally arrived yet, despite the touchdown barrage. Though he has two sacks in his past three games, dating back to last season's Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, he says he needs to become a better pass rusher. He also wants to continue to get stronger so he can improve in stopping the run.
"People are going to start running at him, running play action, throwing double teams at him to see if he can handle it," Michigan State defensive line coach Ron Burton said.
Burton still sees much room for growth in Calhoun, saying his body is still growing and that he's very coachable. Calhoun already has the personality of a star -- "he can light up a room in any setting," Burton says, "whether he's talking to the janitor or the secretaries. He can relate to everyone." But Calhoun sheds his easygoing, friendly manner in the locker room before games, donning his special six-bar face mask and channeling Bane from "The Dark Knight Rises" as his alter ego.
"Once I put on that helmet with that face mask, I'm a totally different guy out there," he said. "It's not Shilique Calhoun. I'm totally angry but focused and ready to exceed expectations."
Calhoun has definitely done that in his first two games this season. He has somehow gotten himself on the Heisman radar, though basketball doesn't stay too far out of his mind.
"Let [Spartans basketball coach] Tom Izzo know I'm ready," he joked at the end of an interview this week. "He might let me on that court."
Defense and scoring? Sounds right up any coach's alley.