Ask me a couple months ago and I would have said Shilique Calhoun’s days in Oakland are numbered. He hung around on the Raiders roster for two seasons, primarily because he carried the promise of a third round pick. That draft status was based on his college production. None of that production has shown up in the NFL and he was largely seen as a ‘dead man walking’ with a new staff whose opinions were not made based on draft position.
As it happens, however, it was that new staff that appears to be the largest contributor to Calhoun looking revitalized. He has now legitimately earned his shot at the Raiders roster, regardless of where he was drafted or what he did in the college ranks.
At Michigan State, Calhoun was a pure pass rusher. He put up 26.0 sacks over his final three seasons, showing increased production each season, and ultimately putting up 10.5 sacks his senior year. But many questioned if he could translate that to the pro game. Mainly because he was pushed off the line too easily by blockers.
In many respects he was the antithesis of Jihad Ward, who was taken by the Raiders in the round before him. Ward was all potential with little production. And with Ward getting shipped off to Dallas during the draft, it was a strong sign the scholarships were over, at least with respect to players who have had two seasons to show up.
Calhoun is now showing up. HIs numbers in Friday night’s game against the Packers were outstanding. One sack, two tackles for loss, and QB hits. And this didn’t come out of nowhere. At least it didn’t this preseason. Calhoun has 2.0 sacks, 6 QB hits, and 5 tackles for loss in three games. Those hits and tackle for loss numbers are both second in the league this preseason.
This is coming from a guy who had a total of a half sack and 11 combined tackles in two NFL seasons, and was sent to the practice squad last season.
How is this happening? A guy who was utterly invisible for two years looks unblockable. Mind you, this is coming against mostly backups, but even still, he isn’t just playing well among them, he’s dominating.
Calhoun just smiles and says “It’s confidence.” Confidence it what, you ask? Confidence in knowing what he is being asked to do. Confidence in his role in the defense. And confidence that his skillset it being maximized.
“Mostly it’s being confident in myself. That’s the biggest thing is the last two years I haven’t been really confident in what I have been doing, my identity,” Calhoun told me after the Raiders preseason opener against the Lions. “I think this year more so I’m settling into my role and understanding what I need to do and being confident in myself as I progress through the game, so it’s really helped me out.”
The previous staff took a pure pass rusher, who couldn’t shed blocks and made him a linebacker. That only made things worse because as much trouble s Calhoun had not giving ground against blockers, he was in a complete foreign country in coverage. What Calhoun described as “staying back on your heels, [not] punch you in the mouth football” which is how Calhoun made his hay at Michigan State.
”I think the style of defense they run really fits me as a player,” said Calhoun after another solid performance Friday against the Packers. “It allows me to be aggressive, allows me to be the person that I was before I got here. It lets me be the person I was in high school, the person I was in college. It allows me to be aggressive and make plays.”
Clearly this is a situation in which ‘coaching matters’. But it’s not entirely fair to place the blame solely on the coaches. Calhoun needed to get bigger. He needed to get stronger. He had rookie growing pains. When you look at his physique now, he’s clearly bulked up which is paying off. He is able to not just rush around the edge, but overpower and bull rush defenders.
Coming out of college there were criticisms of him lacking a mean streak necessary for the position. Essentially, they were saying he was soft. Well, he doesn’t look soft at all now. Whatever he went through his first couple seasons and whatever the new staff has said to him has made all the difference in the world.
“I’m more driven, more focused. I understand what I have to do now and I’m gonna try to play at a high level.”