There are keystones on every Big Ten roster. While there are no one-man shows in football, these are the players who change expectations for a team and could potentially reroute a season if they aren’t able to take the field.
This week the Big Ten blog is identifying the most indispensable player in each locker room around the league this season. Whether it’s their individual talent, their importance in a team’s scheme or the lack of depth behind them, these are the guys teams can’t afford to lose. Next up is Michigan State.
Most indispensable player: DL Malik McDowell
Michigan State’s roster is largely built of interchangeable parts. It’s hard to reach the level of stability coach Mark Dantonio and company have achieved in East Lansing without figuring out how to weather some personnel losses. They don’t make many parts, though, that fit the mold of 6-foot-6, 280-pound Malik McDowell.
The former blue-chip recruit has managed to meet expectations while blending in with a veteran defensive line during his first two college seasons. He made 41 tackles -- 13 of them behind the line of scrimmage -- as a sophomore while playing exclusively on the inside of the line. With the other three starters from the 2015 group out of eligibility, McDowell’s role will expand this season. Dantonio has consistently said the junior is still just scratching the surface on the damage he could do at the line of scrimmage.
Depth is not an issue for Michigan State in the trenches this fall. The Spartans may be able to rotate two full groups of linemen through the defense, especially if Nebraska transfer Kevin Williams and some talented freshmen pan out.
Experience, though, is lacking. Sixth-year senior Damon Knox decided to move on from football after participating in spring football. That leaves McDowell and Demetrius Cooper as the Spartans' only two defensive linemen with significant experience in big situations. McDowell proved his ability to perform under pressure with one of the team’s few impressive individual showings against Alabama in the College Football Playoff semifinals. That type of experience will be important for the defensive line to remain a team strength during a year of turnover.
McDowell’s expected versatility sets him apart on this list from the likes of team leaders Riley Bullough and Tyler O'Connor or veteran wide receiver R.J. Shelton. McDowell slimmed down during spring practice in anticipation of playing both inside and outside on the defensive line this season. He has the potential to be the Spartans' best run-stuffer on first and second down and then their most explosive pass-rusher on third down. The myriad ways Michigan State could use a weapon like McDowell makes him extremely hard to replace.