The two positions attract men of similar stature, but they have completely different goals. Offensive linemen wish to protect the quarterback, while defensive linemen wish to sow chaos in the backfield.
That’s part of the reason why the relationship between Michigan State defensive end Shilique Calhoun and offensive tackle Jack Conklin is so unique.
Calhoun and Conklin couldn’t be more different. Calhoun is an outgoing city kid from New Jersey who attracted lots of offers and attention before choosing Michigan State. Conklin is a quiet country boy from Michigan who didn’t receive much attention at all.
Even their nicknames are different. Conklin assumes the alter ego of “Batman,” while Calhoun goes by “Bane,” the superhero’s nemesis. Conklin told Spartan Nation, “I figured if he could call himself Bane, I must be Batman.”
So how did two players, different in nearly every way, become such close friends? It all started with Bane lending a helping hand to Batman.
In August 2012, Shilique Calhoun was just another name on the Michigan State roster. Calhoun came to MSU as a heralded high school player, but other stars such as Will Gholston and Marcus Rush were ahead of him on the depth chart.
That began to change as the season progressed. The Spartan coaching staff granted Calhoun more playing time as he showed flashes of brilliance. Dantonio and other coaches on staff spoke highly of Calhoun, leading the media to talk more with the emerging star.
While Calhoun liked the attention, he didn’t use the opportunity to inflate his ego. Instead he took time to talk about a little-known player on the opposite side of the line of scrimmage – Jack Conklin.
Conklin almost didn’t become a Spartan. The Plainwell, Michigan native was set to attend Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia before the MSU coaching staff showed interest in him late in the recruiting process. A handful of other schools were prepared to take Conklin as a preferred walk-on, but no other school was prepared to give him a full scholarship. Conklin quickly became a Spartan, despite the fact that his father was a Michigan Wolverine and he later earned a scholarship at Michigan State after coming here via the walk on role. .
Conklin worked his tail off to take advantage of his golden opportunity. Calhoun took notice of Conklin’s work on the scout team, and heaped praise on his younger colleague.
“It really just helped motivate me even more and made me work even harder,” Conklin told Spartan Nation in August 2013.
After the conclusion of the 2012 season, Conklin used the offseason to bulk up and improve his skills. With the help of his new friend, as well as strength and conditioning coach Ken Mannie, Conklin showed up to camp in the fall with a big body and something to prove.
Only when Conklin earned the starting spot at left tackle did people start to notice him. It’s hard not to spot a 6’6, 330 pound lineman with a chip on his shoulder.
Calhoun’s star ascended to new heights last season. “Shilique the Freak” made quarterbacks scurry out of the pocket in fear of the 6’5, 256 pound monster. Calhoun racked up 37 tackles, 7.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries in an outstanding season.
A big part of the dominating Spartan defense, Calhoun was named the Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year and received several other accolades.
After helping Michigan State capture a Rose Bowl victory, Calhoun could have bolted for the NFL. Draft pundits predicted that he would come off the board in the first round, which would have meant a big payday for Calhoun.
Despite the temptation, Calhoun chose to stay in East Lansing and hone his skills for another season with his buddy on the other side of the ball.
“Having him here has definitely strengthened my skills,” Calhoun said of Conklin. “[There were a] lot of places I needed improvement in.”
Conklin couldn’t be happier to have Calhoun back for another year. Without a doubt, Conklin has benefited from practicing against the star defensive end.
“I can’t thank him enough for being here,” Conklin said. “I’m better every day because of him. After each one-on-one that we do against each other, if he beats me, he’ll come over and tell me what I did wrong. If I get him, I’ll go over and tell him the little thing he did wrong that I saw. It helps a ton.”
As offensive line coach Mark Staten said, Calhoun made the right choice.
“We just got a study from one of our GM friends. The number of players who went out early, compared to the past, only two-thirds were drafted. They get their heads filled by people who want to make money on them,” Staten said. “Shilique had such a great year, and he’s such an intelligent person. He understands that if you follow that up, things will be even better. As the new CBA is structured, the top 20 picks get everything. After that, you gotta work for your money. It’s not like it was back five, six years ago even. He gets all of that.”
United for another season, Calhoun and Conklin set out to improve even more over the offseason. Conklin especially appreciated the chance to improve with his friend by his side.
“After the season, I looked back and said, ‘What can I fix about my game?’ And I just wanted to be quicker. So I changed my weight. I dropped about 22 pounds. I weigh about 308, where I weighed about 330 [before],” Conklin said. “That’s the biggest thing: I’m a little bit quicker now. My body is more mature – more muscle, less fat. That’s the biggest thing, and just honing my skills.”
Calhoun has seen Conklin’s improvement first-hand. As Calhoun attests, Big Ten defensive linemen better watch out for the redshirt sophomore.
“He’s a big guy who can move his feet,” Calhoun said of Conklin. “Not only that, he can move his hands very well for an offensive lineman. Don’t tell him, but he’s a pretty good player.”
Conklin has big goals for the season, and he isn’t afraid to pancake any opponents who stand in his way.
“The way I look at it, I haven’t accomplished half of the things I want to do,” Conklin said. “I just want to keep going, showing people what I can do. That’s the biggest thing. That’s fun for me. I came from not having any stars, not having anybody want me. Then I got the chance. From here on out, it’s just a dream come true showing people what I can do.”
Calhoun has high hopes for the season, too. The junior wants to cement himself as one of the best defensive ends in college football and increase his draft stock before getting his degree.
In the meantime, Calhoun is enjoying his time learning and working with his friend and adversary on the field.
“We talk before and after practice, trying to better understand each other and each other’s position. We definitely have grown over the years,” Calhoun said. “I definitely feel like I’ve known him forever because of the type of communication we have with each other. I definitely love having him as a friend, but as a teammate, too.”
Calhoun and Conklin balance each other out perfectly, just like Bane and Batman. The two make a great duo.
“I think it’s the best of both worlds,” Conklin said. “They just clash together and it equals a good friendship and a good competition. It’s fun being around him.”
The two love to have friendly competitions and poke fun at each other often. It’s easy to spot the two hulking but jovial linemen sharing a laugh together after practice.
One of the running jokes is that if Conklin makes it big, he’ll owe Calhoun royalties, since Bane gave a young Batman praise before anyone else did.
“I probably do a little bit,” Conklin joked. “But don’t tell him that, he’ll get too big of a head.”
Calhoun and Conklin might not be a traditional duo like Batman and Robin. But in this case, Bane and Batman make a fine team.