What Michigan State’s offense will look like under coordinator Jay Johnson is still a bit of a mystery.
There was no spring practice to watch and there will be no chance for fans to see the Spartans in the annual spring game, which was scheduled for Saturday, but was long ago canceled in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
Johnson has said he’s looking for balance and feels confident in the playmakers the Spartans have as they identify a new starting quarterback to replace three-year starter Brian Lewerke. Whoever that starter is has weapons at the wide receiver position, an improving offensive line and a backfield led by Elijah Collins, who could be on the verge of a breakout sophomore season.
But there’s one spot that could be Michigan State’s wild card: Tight end.
“In the conversations I’ve had with Coach Johnson, that position is going to be an integral part in our offense,” tight ends coach Ted Gilmore said. “Obviously, we’re going to put a lot on those guys, not just in the pass game, but in the run game. It’s got to be a selfless group of men and guys that are lunch-pail kind of guys, come to work every single day.”
Gilmore, who joined Mel Tucker’s staff after coaching wide receivers at Wisconsin the past five seasons while adding the title of passing-game coordinator the last three years, has some pieces with which to work.
Production from the tight end had waned the past few seasons under Mark Dantonio, but there were some positive shifts last season. Matt Seybert, who caught 26 passes for 284 yards and three touchdowns last season, graduated. But, Matt Dotson returns after missing the final four games with a ruptured Achilles, and Trenton Gillison is coming off an impressive performance in the Pinstripe Bowl when he had four receptions for 88 yards, including a 64-yard strike.
“I hope that left a taste in his mouth in terms of wanting to pick up where he left off,” Gilmore said of Gillison, who had 12 catches for 147 yards as a redshirt freshman. “That’s my expectation with him. We don’t have time to start all over. I talk to him a lot about body language reflects confidence. The minute we can start this thing, I expect him to hit the ground running and not take any steps back and pick up where he left off because he did do some good things in that bowl game.”
At 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds, Gillison is athletic and physical, presenting potential matchup problems for opponents. Dotson is a similar player who had 16 catches before suffering his injury and is being counted on to be a steadying member of the tight end room entering his senior season.
“I do know he’s going to be an important piece of the puzzle,” Gilmore said of Dotson. “I’m looking forward to getting him back sooner rather than later.”
Another intriguing member of the tight end group is Adam Berghorst.
The two-sport athlete — he was a 14th-round draft pick of the Texas Rangers and pitched in 15⅓ innings for Michigan State early this spring — began last season at defensive end before being shifted over to tight end. He played one snap against Illinois then played the final four games, meaning he’ll be a sophomore this fall, but one who has plenty of upside.
For now, the plan is to develop that upside on the offensive side of the ball.
“I can tell you I’m excited about the way the young man looks,” Gilmore said. “He looks the part, and I think it speaks a lot to who he is. A kid that is trying to do two sports and is juggling that, and obviously the commitment it takes on both sides of that. He’s been working extremely hard in terms of learning the offense and I have no concerns on his ability to pick that up.”
The rest of the tight end group includes sophomore Parks Gissinger, who also moved to tight end from defensive end last season and had a catch in the Pinstripe Bowl, as well as junior Max Rosenthal and fifth-year senior Reid Burton, two players that had been fullbacks but are now listed as tight ends. Michigan State also welcomes true freshman Tommy Guajardo in the fall.
There’s no doubt the tight end will be, as Gilmore said, an integral part of the offense. Who stands out at that position is still a work in progress.
“I can tell you this,” Gilmore said. “Whether it’s the guys that are here and able and ready to go, and we’ve got whoever joins us in the future, the expectations in terms of what we are asking them to do, that won’t change regardless of who is on the field or who has been there. We will coach whoever is up, and based on the conversations I’ve had with these young men, they are all willing and able and ready to accept that challenge.”