Matt Dotson's return, Trenton Gillison's development bolster Michigan State's tight ends
It’s been almost a year since Matt Dotson ruptured the Achilles tendon in his right leg.
The Spartans tight end suffered the injury in a Nov. 9 loss to Illinois, wiping out the final four games of his junior season and placing doubt on whether he’d be ready by the time the 2020 season kicked off.
Perhaps thanks to the season being delayed by COVID-19, Dotson is on target to be back in the lineup when Michigan State kicks off the season Oct. 24 at home against Rutgers.
“Well, we're counting on him,” Michigan State tight ends coach Ted Gilmore said Tuesday in a virtual call with reporters. “Obviously, he's working hard and getting himself back into game shape. Obviously, if you ask Matt, he feels he's a work in progress but he's working hard, he's competing and he's out there every single day.”
It could be a critical development for the Spartans and first-year coach Mel Tucker. The tight end spot has long been a critical one in the Michigan State offense and that isn’t expect to change with Tucker taking over and offensive coordinator Jay Johnson calling the shots.
Dotson offers the most experience of any other tight end. The former four-star recruit has 32 catches for 329 yards with two touchdowns in 31 career games and was having the best year of his career in 2019 before the injury. Through eight games, Dotson had 16 receptions for 151 yards and a touchdown.
With Dotson on the shelf, the Spartans relied heavily last season on senior Matt Seybert while then-redshirt freshman Trenton Gillison began to see more playing time. An injury shelved Seybert for the Pinstripe Bowl matchup with Wake Forest, opening the door for Gillison, who took advantage with four catches for 88 yards.
At 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds, Gillison, another four-star recruit, is a matchup problem for opposing defenses in the pass game and Gilmore is pushing Gillison to be a more all-around player, one who can be on the field regardless of down and distance.
“Trent is a guy that runs extremely well and he’s a young man that we feel can really, really help us in the pass game part of it,” Gilmore said. “So his challenge and his mission is to get better at the point in the run game and to become a complete player. So, that’s something we’re trying to challenge him to do and he’s embracing it. He’s embracing it, and as he continues to get better — as far as a leverage player getting better, as far as using our hands — I think he’s well on his way to taking that next step to become a complete player and to have a bigger role.”
With Dotson and Gillison firmly in the mix, establishing depth and a third option is critical. Sophomore Adam Berghorst began last season at defensive end before shifting over and seeing action in five games.
A two-sport athlete, Berghorst was a 14th-round draft pick of the Texas Rangers and pitched in 15⅓ innings for Michigan State early this spring. At 6-7 and 260 pounds, he has as much upside as any of the tight ends and is quickly adapting to his role.
“He is a big man and we spend a lot of time trying to get low, trying to get his pads down in the run game,” Gilmore said. “He has stepped it up and is being a little bit more physical, which we need him to do. Because with that size, he's got to be able to hold the point for us. And in the pass game he's a guy that I spend a lot of time trying to get him to transition a little better. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to get him to understand we don't have to be the fastest guy, but with his body and his length, he can create the same separation by learning how to lean on people.”
Sophomore Parks Gissinger, another former defensive end, will get snaps, too, after recording his first career catch in the Pinstripe Bowl. Freshman Tommy Guajardo could on track for a redshirt while former fullbacks Max Rosenthal and Reid Burton are also at tight end.
The most intriguing possibility is junior Tyler Hunt. The 6-2, 235-pound punter and holder on field goals started playing on the kick-return unit last season, and is now mixing in work at tight end. A multi-sport standout at Gobles High as a prep player, Hunt’s move to the position is proving to be more than something fun to talk about.
“He’s been a wonderful surprise,” Gilmore said. “He's doing some really good things and bringing some athleticism to the table, and that’s exciting with him.”