Bob Wojnowski, Angelique S. Chengelis and Matt Charboneau preview the UM-Penn State and MSU-Maryland games. The Detroit News, The Detroit News
East Lansing — For an offense that has made good use of its tight ends over the years, Michigan State had hardly noticed the position through the first seven weeks of the season.
Entering last week’s game against Purdue, Michigan State’s tight ends had caught a grand total of nine passes. They did better than half that in the 23-13 victory over the Boilermakers, as sophomore Matt Dotson had four catches for 48 yards while fifth-year senior Matt Sokol caught one pass for 13 yards.
For coach Mark Dantonio, the production was overdue.
“It's about time, yeah,” Dantonio said with a smile this week.
It’s been something the Spartans (5-3, 3-2 Big Ten) have talked all season about doing, but until last week, it simply hasn’t happened. There have been targets, for sure, but it hasn’t always resulted in much. While Dotson — a highly recruited prospect out of Ohio — has shown flashes, Sokol has struggled hanging on to the ball this season.
Whether that weighed on quarterback Brian Lewerke is hard to say, but once redshirt freshman Rocky Lombardi took over as Lewerke sat with an injured shoulder, the tight end was once again a primary option.
“(The quarterback change) is not too big, but Rocky distributes it really well if you look at the stats,” Dotson said. “About every other person had three, four, five, six catches. It’s just the style is different. Everyone has a different play-making style, a different arm with the way the ball comes off, and I think Rocky changes it up little more.”
It doesn’t hurt that Dotson and Lombardi were part of the same recruiting class and have spent plenty of time together. Even as Dotson saw time as a true freshman last season and Lombardi redshirted, they worked to develop their relationship.
Dotson said it is critical when it comes to being on the same page on the field.
“Me and Rocky have always had a good relationship,” Dotson said. “We were suitemates last year in Case (Hall), so we’ve always been building that relationship. But it was just fun (last week). I feel like we’re not there yet, but every week we’re slowly clicking a little bit more and more, and this week almost has been one of our most productive weeks.”
And if the rapport is breaking down and Lombardi isn’t seeing the tight end, Dotson doesn’t hesitate to remind his quarterback.
“He's in my ear all the time,” Lombardi said, laughing. “You guys got to get on him for that if you ever talk to him. He's nuts, man. He's always talking ‘I'm open, I'm open, I'm open.’ Most times he's right, but you still don't like to hear that.”
If he continues to hear it, that likely means good things for the pair and the Michigan State offense. As the Spartans head to Maryland (5-3, 3-2) this week for a noon kickoff on Saturday, there is a new feeling around the offense. The numbers were far from groundbreaking last week against Purdue, but there was a spark to the team.
Much of that was because of Lombardi, and if he continues to utilize his tight ends, it makes Michigan State that much harder to defend.
Dantonio isn’t sure the increased use of the tight ends is simply about playing a different quarterback. Instead, he just thinks the tight ends are too good to keep down.
“The quarterback makes decisions, he goes through his progressions just like anybody,” Dantonio said. “(The tight ends) are out there, they have got to get open and certain things are designed to go to them, but other times you've got to find them. So, I thought that he did a nice job finding those guys this past week and continuing to use our tight ends. They are good pass catchers.”
Dotson, who had just two receptions last season, now has nine this year and thinks last week was just the beginning.
“I definitely think the best is yet to come,” Dotson said. “Hopefully soon.”