MSU mailbag: Tight-end situation still murky

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Michigan State gets set to head to Northwestern on Saturday to try and remain unbeaten in the Big Ten and in the East Division race, while on the basketball court, the Spartans play twice this week including a game Sunday against Georgia.

So, plenty to talk about in this week’s mailbag as we dive into some of the offensive issues on the football field while debating which team loses more Big Ten games.

That turned out to be a tougher question to answer than I thought.

Question: How would you rate MSU’s tight end situation? Seems like point production is low, but uncertain how performing in blocking & pass protection? — @hogaboom77

Answer: I’d have to rate it, or grade it, I guess, as about a C. It can be sometimes hard to gauge overall tight-end performance when you’re tying in their play in both the passing game as a receiver as well as their run and pass blocking. The reception numbers certainly don’t stand out as junior Matt Sokol has 11 catches this season for 121 yards and a touchdown. However, Sokol has gone without a catch in each of the last two games while Noah Davis and Matt Dotson have only one catch each. Of course, both Davis and Dotson were hurt last week against Indiana which forced more action for walk-on Matt Seybert.

There was no update this week on the status of either Davis or Dotson so whether or not they’re available against Northwestern is unclear. However it plays out, however, the Spartans could certainly use more production from the tight ends. “Yeah, there’s a little concern,” Dantonio said of the tight-end depth, “but we should be all right.”

More:In pay, UM's Harbaugh third, MSU's Dantonio 16th in nation

Q. What’s the key to get the passing game on track? Protection? WR play? QB reads? QB execution? All of the above? … coaches/play calling? — @mattyyyk

A. Like most things on the football field, it’s rarely one single issue that is keeping an aspect of the offense from being effective. It’s easy to say a little of everything, but that’s the reality with this team. We’ve talked over and over about how young the Spartans are and they are in nearly every position involved in the passing game, including quarterback, wide receiver and offensive line. Overall, the offensive line has done a good job in protection, though it hasn’t been perfect. The receivers have been outstanding at times, but there have been other stretches — much of the Indiana game — where they couldn’t get separation.

A lot of that often falls on the quarterback, and Brian Lewerke certainly has had issues locking on a few receivers and debating how long to stay in the pocket and how quickly to bail out and run. So the key really is getting it all on the same page. Can that happen this season? Sure, but it is harder when so many young players are learning on the fly.

Q. Who loses more games during conference play. The basketball team or the football team? — @Kerdaddy

A. Well, now you’re really making me think. When I first read it, my immediate reaction was, ‘The basketball team, of course!’ However, when you really dive into it, things might not be that clear. If I had to predict right now, I’d say Michigan State ends up with two conference losses — Penn State and Ohio State. The last time a team won the conference title in basketball with only two losses was in 2015, when Wisconsin went 16-2, and that was the only time in the last five years.

Can Michigan State go 16-2 in Big Ten play this season in basketball? Absolutely. However, the Big Ten will be no slouch this season. With Purdue, Minnesota, Maryland, Northwestern and Michigan, there are plenty of teams that will push the Spartans and I’ll never count out the Badgers.

So there, I’m saying the basketball team loses more … but not by much. Maybe only by one.

Q. Is Gerald Holmes injured? If not, why hasn’t he played the last 2 games? I believe he’s the only RB yet to fumble this year. — @jsnev11

A. Yes, Holmes is injured. He had injured his ankle in the Michigan game, something that Mark Dantonio has routinely described as being “nicked up.” Of course, he says that for just about every injury these days that doesn’t fall under the season-ending category. Holmes has been in uniform and ready to play in each of the past two games, but it was clearly only in an emergency that the Spartans would have used him.

And yes, he’s the only back not to have lost a fumble this season. In fact, he hasn’t put the ball on the ground at all. There’s never been any question as to Holmes’ reliability, and as the games get bigger the Spartans will surely count on that again.

More:MSU freshman 'baller' Cody White earns top job

Q. Do you, like I think Cam Heyward will be a real factor at RB next season? — @pfnnewmedia

A. Well, I’m sure you were going for Connor Heyward, though the Steelers’ defensive end might be effective in Michigan State’s backfield. I’m sure he’ll be a factor. Let’s be honest, the Spartans wouldn’t be playing him if they weren’t expecting him to play a larger role as a sophomore. What that role might be depends a lot on LJ Scott. There has been some talk about him leaving a year early for the NFL, but if he’s back, that means he and Madre London will be seniors and would likely be ahead of Heyward.

That doesn’t mean Heyward would sit. He’s proven he can be used in several roles, including as a receiver out of the backfield. So, if Scott is gone then yes, he’ll have a significant role. If Scott is here, it will still be an important role but might not include as many carries.