EAST LANSING, Mich. — Malik McDowell knew two things when he visited the Mayo Clinic in late June. He knew his Vitamin D level had been low. He knew that, according to Michigan State training staff, this was possibly contributing to the pain in his chest he'd endured since the third week of the 2015 season. He also knew the Vitamin D supplements he was taking did absolutely nothing to mute the ache in his torso, this sensation of something pushing on his epidermis, trying to get out. So through the school's various hospital partnerships, he wound up at Mayo, where doctors pumped him full of liquid that made his bones glow. And then they told the 6'6", 276-pound defensive lineman something he didn't know.
He didn't have cancer or a bone disease or anything grim. He had a plate in his chest that hadn't closed.
"So basically," McDowell says, "I'm still growing."
In a strictly literal sense, this is manageable for anyone who will encounter the ascendant junior from Detroit this fall. The real discomfort derives from McDowell expanding in other ways. The problem is a former five-star recruit, already bendy and quick and athletic enough to play over center, adding technical proficiency and consistency as he enters his third year. The problem is McDowell mastering all of the positions along the Spartans' defensive front. The problem is McDowell building a full repertoire of pass-rush moves, countermeasures that make him harder to block even when the scheme is perfect. While Michigan State aspires to another Big Ten championship and another College Football Playoff berth, there is a space between good and great that McDowell aims to bridge with a different kind of growth spurt.
If he manages this, opponents may feel their own dull ache, followed by the same explanation doctors gave McDowell about his own chest pain: There isn't anything you can do about it. "It's possible for a D-lineman to be unstoppable every play," McDowell says. "Even if the play isn't going to you, you blow your man up still. That's what makes, in my eyes, a good D-lineman. Being unstoppable."
The standard figures of tackles-for-loss and sacks remain useful to determine the general destructiveness of a defensive lineman; McDowell's 13 stops for a loss as a sophomore ranked second on the team, while his 4.5 sacks ranked third, all evidence of potential and upward trajectory. But it's easier to gauge when a quarterback or a running back or even a linebacker performs at an elite level. Along the interior of the defensive line, the job is often occupying blockers so others can clean up. Assessing McDowell's progress from regular to redoubtable star might require a more nuanced inspection, and the nuances are precisely what he's working on.
"Whether it be an opposing coach, a coach here, or a person at the next level watching him, they look at the intricacies," Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio says. "It's not about sacks. It's how he takes on blocks, his hand placement, his pursuit, his reaction to different blocking schemes, things of that nature. …That's where he's a lot different than where he was as a freshman. Knowledge is power. And he's got a great deal of football knowledge now."
McDowell did not arrive in East Lansing without some grasp on those intricacies. "He had a natural feel for what was going on, especially with his vision and eye control," Michigan State defensive line coach Ron Burton says. If McDowell the freshman was lined up over a guard that pulled, he redirected and attacked right away—instead of being frozen with indecision like many young linemen. Advanced as McDowell was in this, he still didn't have much in the way of a move set. Given his exceptional physical gifts, his primary means of attack in high school was stabbing a blocker with his arm—picture a log shot into someone's sternum—and then spinning off to make the play.
This worked well at Detroit's Southfield High School. It did not work so well against Jack Allen, Michigan State's bristly veteran center and a former state wrestling champion, on what McDowell remembers as one of the very first snaps he took on his very first day of college practice. "Jack like threw me back 10 yards," McDowell says. "It was ridiculous. That ain't never happened ever in my life. He came off and just took me for that ride."
Mortified further by Allen flopping on top of him and applying some manner of wrestling hold ("You just have to pretty much wait for him to get up off you, can't even really be mad," McDowell says) a duly initiated freshman began to pay attention. He watched other players to pick up their technique. He learned about proper hand placement—center of the chest, don't be outside the shoulder pads—and stopped throwing his shoulders at blockers. He began to understand he could weaponize his quickness by honing his first step at the snap. "I like being the first one to move," McDowell says. As his attention to detail grew, his technique gradually caught up with his ability. The leap from good to great now requires near-flawless deployment of that technique.
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Sometimes, McDowell tires and gets lazy with his hands, using his shoulder on first contact. "Can't do that," he says. McDowell also consulted over the summer with former Spartans standout and current Tampa Bay Buccaneer William Gholston on pass-rush moves, since McDowell will likely play on the edge more in 2016. He likes the "dead shoulder," where he drops low to pop back high. He likes the chop-rip. He still uses the long-arm ("That's my thing") and says he is mindful to flip his hips and get his hands high every play.
He is also unconcerned with explaining, in detail, how he will attack blockers. The underlying reasoning: If he is precise, it won't matter. "It ain't top secret," McDowell says. "They're still gonna work anyway."
What will make McDowell great is his dedication to technique; what puts him in position to be great is that he is a very large human who is astoundingly strong, fast and wiggly for being so large. "He can move his body in directions I couldn't even imagine," senior defensive end Demetrius Cooper says. Fellow defensive lineman Raequan Williams offers an example from a preseason practice: On one particular snap, McDowell sized up a pulling guard and a center coming down the line to block him. The job priority, for most, is simply getting hands on the center to occupy at least one blocker and therefore keep yourself in the play. "Malik is so good, he gets off the ball so fast, he grabs the guard, with the center blocking on him while he has the guard, and he just takes over two people," Williams says. "The linebacker is free. I'm free. I don't know. He's just crazy."
This inability to attach words to what they're seeing is common. Cooper has two favorite McDowell moments: In the first, McDowell lined up across from Oregon center Matt Hegarty with the Ducks trying to plow into the end zone on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line. The 6' 6" McDowell shot under the 6'4" Hegarty at the snap, jammed his hands into the middle of Hegarty's chest and drove the Ducks center back three yards, clearing a gigantic lane for Spartans linebacker Riley Bullough to meet the ball-carrier and punctuate the goal-line stand. Says Cooper: "You're in the film room like, 'Damn, how did he do that?'"
The second of Cooper's highlights was maybe as percussive but borne of something more profound than sheer force. Early in the fourth quarter of a 55-16 win over Penn State, the Spartans set up to defend a third-and-1. The Nittany Lions set up a middle screen, but Michigan State defensive end Shilique Calhoun tipped the pass that quarterback Christian Hackenberg attempted to float over the pass rush. As Cooper and Calhoun try to locate the ball, McDowell continues his pursuit from the right side and it lands in his hands. And he runs it back 13 yards for a touchdown. Upon reviewing the film, Cooper noticed something more than a large human traipsing into the end zone after a nimble pick. He gleaned that McDowell diagnosed the screen pass by reading Hackenburg's eyes. And that instinct put McDowell in place to make the play. "It wasn't an accident," Cooper says. "He saw the ball the whole time."
These are unmistakable signatures of an exceptional talent. And McDowell is plain about what will make 2016 a great season: Dominating the player every play, he says. That does not necessarily translate into a sack or a tackle three yards in the backfield, and that is where contextualizing McDowell's performance requires more of discerning eye.
"If it doesn't happen, I'm still going to make something shake," McDowell says of piling up personal statistics. "Send as many people at me as you want to. That means somebody else is open. I ain't really tripping. One of my linebackers is going to come make the play, one of my D-tackles is going to get off. I know the right people see what I'm doing even if I don't actually make the play."
The right people likely won't miss it if McDowell makes the advances he anticipates making. At Michigan State's media day in early August, his original dissemination of the growth-plate story was only the second-most notable statement; he eschewed all nuance when he greeted questions about his professional future. McDowell claimed he wouldn't enter the NFL draft early unless he was a guaranteed top three pick. It's a long way to May, of course, and McDowell doesn't back off that sentiment after a mid-August practice—"I like it here," he says—but it is unmistakably a player welcoming the pressure to fulfill what has been expected of him.
Michigan State has unearthed many prospects short a few stars in the recruiting rankings, yes. But it has also hauled in its share of well-regarded talent; a combined 24 four-star players populated its last three recruiting classes. McDowell was nothing if not well-regarded, a five-star gem likely representing the biggest recruiting win of the Dantonio era so far. As a result, his is a mission not to exceed a recruiting ranking as much as live up to it.
"The key is being able to get up every day to go to work," Dantonio says. "The sky's the limit for him. I still believe he's got room to grow because he can be dominant. Now he has an opportunity to be that guy."
That guy is in Michigan State's indoor practice field, sitting on a chair and noting that he is, at that very moment, suffering from minor discomfort. The growing pains in his chest haven't gone away yet, and Malik McDowell is not big on ibuprofen or other over-the-counter remedies. So all he can do is wait. At some point the plate will close and then growing will be done. He'll be where he's supposed to be. And he won't be the one feeling pain.