Wednesday October 1st, 2014

Regarding the reverse-suplex, overhead-tire-throw move that just about left Eastern Michigan quarterback Rob Bolden snapped in half on Sept. 20, Shilique Calhoun says this was not his fault. If you watch the tape, Michigan State’s star defensive end insists, a linebacker had the first shot at a sack. That defender fell off, though, and all Calhoun could do was grab Bolden’s hips. He tried to stop him. He really did. But Bolden wouldn’t stop. He didn’t realize he probably should have.

“I was like, all right -- he’s gotta go up,” Calhoun says. “If I get his feet off the ground, then he won’t be able to move anymore. It was his fault, technically. He should have stopped running.”

Regarding last week’s daisy-cutter block on an interception return that just about left Illinois in need of a dustpan to clean up the remnants of Malik Turner, Randy Gregory argues this was not his problem. Nebraska’s standout defensive end watched the second-quarter throw, saw his safety center-fielding the pass for a sure pick, then locked on the first guy to cross his vision. This was bad for Turner. If he didn’t swivel, he might have been fine. But he swiveled. And he was not fine.

“If he honestly didn’t turn his back for another split-second, I wouldn’t even have hit him,” Gregory says. “But I kind of slowed up, and right at the last second he turned and looked at me. And it was over.”

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Some may view human destruction a little less casually, but not everyone has so many examples from which to choose. Calhoun and Gregory have examples. The former is a 6-foot-5, 256-pound, Bane-impersonating dynamo with 17 tackles for loss including 9.5 sacks in his last 18 games, plus three defensive scores as a sophomore. The latter is a 6-6, 245-pound irrepressible projectile, responsible for 24 tackles for loss with 15 sacks in his last 17 games. They will occupy the same field on Saturday when Nebraska (5-0) visits Michigan State (3-1) in the Big Ten’s most important regular-season matchup. Someone’s playoff hopes may get obliterated. Who does the obliterating is an apt question on several levels.

Calhoun's and Gregory’s quarterback hunting earned them spots on last year’s All-Big Ten team and this fall’s award watch lists. But both players shaped the offseason on the premise of every-down disruption: They sought to complement their prolific pass-rush with stout run-stopping and a mastery of retreating off the line to chase receivers, all of which keeps offenses off balance.

“Any great player, they self-evaluate every play, every practice, every game and see what they can improve on to better their game throughout the season,” Gregory says. “Succeeding is just self-evaluating and knowing what you’re doing wrong and trying to correct it.”

Says an ex-personnel man who evaluated Calhoun and Gregory: “Both have edge speed along with pass-rush skills. Both have benefited from a strength standpoint returning for this year. And they’re also versatile enough to drop into coverage.”

It was some fine-tuning that enhanced the blunt force stuff, though.

Gregory’s self-examination produced a desire to transfer from speed to power more effectively, to hone his technique with his hands, allowing him to shed blockers in the run game. His position coach, Rick Kaczenski, harped on Gregory to trust his eyes, both for keying on the offensive lineman and placing those hands correctly. If a team down-blocks, for example, Nebraska asks its defensive linemen to play that “heavy,” to hold up the blocker so he doesn’t move along to a linebacker. “As easy as it sounds, our defensive ends, including me, we have a lot of trouble with that,” Gregory says. “If our eyes can key on the man, we can get our hands on the inside of the breastplate and not allow him to climb.”

Likewise, Calhoun wanted to become a more credible run-stopper. He hit the film room to dissect his own technique but added a touch of brutality to the approach: He sized up the biggest guy in workouts and made sure to compete against him. “Even when it came down to playing against our tight ends, I tried to make sure I went up against someone who was heavier than me,” Calhoun says. “So I could get used to being dominant against the run.”

Generally they share a dexterous, detailed approach for what seems like fairly uncomplicated duty. In film sessions, Gregory is a forensic examiner. “To the minute details,” says Greg McMullen, Nebraska’s other starting defensive end. “He’ll watch film and say, OK, I know this guy on pass rush does this and does that -- these are the best moves for that, but also these counter moves will do well.”

Meanwhile, Calhoun examines the sets of offensive tackles on video and during games to plan the counterattack. Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio notes that Calhoun is no freelancer despite his teeming talent. “He understands our defense,” Dantonio says. “It’s not all the time about him making a play. It’s about how he fits in the defense that’s just as important.”

The ability to fit in several places, while conceding little athletically, is an edge afforded both defenses. Nebraska asks Gregory to take his hand off the turf and shift over at times, the better to suss out how an offense plans to address him. Defensive coordinator John Papuchis reacts accordingly. “When we stand him up and walk him around, a lot of times we get a good feel for how they’re going to turn their protection,” Papuchis says. “So then we can start dictating our pressure package. If they’re going to constantly turn their protection to Randy, then we can bring other guys and drop Randy into coverage to keep people honest.”

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Still, the preference is to have Gregory and Calhoun spend less time backpedaling away from quarterbacks and more time as purveyors of backfield chaos.

They wield basic philosophies about this duty, and perhaps that helps both add on elsewhere. Calhoun keeps his repertoire simple: A first move, a counter and then a counter to the counter. Gregory analogizes pass rushing to boxing, matching the hands of the blocker. He tries to work half a lineman and turn his hips toward the quarterback, but that’s the extent of it. Natural aggression fuels the rest.

“Believe it or not, because everyone sees how explosive he is, a lot of his sacks are effort sacks,” Papuchis says of Gregory. “Yeah, he has the highlight-reel ones where he jumps over a cut block or beats a guy inside clean. But most of his sacks have been off relentless effort, where he might have been blocked and the quarterback may have scrambled and stepped up in the pocket, and he just keeps going and tracks him down from the backside.”

Calhoun, who has two sacks and a blocked kick so far in 2014, has a similarly resolute perspective. “I think of it this way,” he says. “When it comes to a passing down, if a ball is completed, or a quarterback is able to scramble to get the ball off, or there’s a big pass and our defensive backs aren’t able to tackle them -- I see it as my fault. I should have been in the backfield a lot faster.”

Of course, not every bit of progress for the Big Ten’s best pass rushers has been in lock step. Gregory pulled his groin before the opener against Florida Atlantic, tore his meniscus in that game, had surgery and sat out a week. He was so amped for his return against Fresno State on Sept. 13 that he cramped up on the first series. “I think my body went into shock,” Gregory says. He recovered nicely: All 4.5 of his sacks have come in the past two games. (Though even on Tuesday Gregory lamented that he’d caught some sort of virus, necessitating a visit to the doctor and a morning IV. He said after practice he felt fine.)

Their weaknesses, in the meantime, can be consuming.

For Calhoun, it is Beijing beef at Panda Express. He is a fast-food junkie who ate McDonald’s before every high school basketball and football game. His metabolism has allowed him to continue to indulge, even though he told his nutritionist that he orders the Beijing beef regularly and the nutritionist replied that Calhoun should stop. “I just can’t,” he says. “I think I’m kind of addicted to it. This is a recommendation. If you got nothing else from today, try Beijing beef.”

Gregory adhered to a stricter diet over the summer, revolving around fish and steak and milk, allowing him to build lean muscle mass. He added five to six pounds to his 2013 playing weight but kept his body fat in the seven percent range. The only glitch: His resistance to sugary temptation registers just as low. “Life Savers, and any flavor of Starburst, is going to get me,” Gregory says. “It’s a habit. It’s almost like a drug. You got a few days without it, you’re going to be begging for it, and eventually it will end up in my hands.”

Calhoun and Gregory don’t have much more than a passing acquaintance with each other, despite the strikingly similar routes each took to get here. While they will be in the same stadium this weekend, they will not end up in the same place, not with the postseason fates of Michigan State and Nebraska tied to the outcome.

In the end, it won’t be too different than what often happens when Randy Gregory and Shilique Calhoun take the field. It might look very much like what happens to a quarterback wiggling away from a sack, or an offensive player veering into the wrong lane while trying to track down an interception return.

Someone, on Saturday, is probably getting blown up.

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