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Tight ends look to shore up spots as Spartans spring football nears end

April 21, 2004
Junior tight end Eric Knott shakes hands with head coach John L. Smith at the beginning of football practice on Sept. 24.

The Spartans offense is kind of like a football airport - most plays involve head coach John L. Smith clearing his quarterback for take-off.

Last season, the Spartans went to the air for 3,510 yards, so with this pass-first mentality, athletes with pass-catching abilities are a must. And the Spartans are lucky to have a solid, experienced group of athletes to play catch with the heir-apparent to Jeff Smoker. Names like Agim Shabaj, Kyle Brown, Aaron Alexander and Matt Trannon inevitably will be mentioned as the Spartans' top receivers.

But there is a position that runs and blocks with these receivers that is sometimes underpublicized because of its lack of lease space in the box score.

This position - tight end. A much-needed one in terms of blocking schemes in a run-hungry league such as the Big Ten. The Spartans have two experienced and talented tight ends in seniors Eric Knott and Jason Randall, who will place their experience and improvements on display at the Green-White Spring Scrimmage at 1 p.m. Saturday at Spartan Stadium.

Through spring practice, Randall said there's been a lot of focus on the Spartans' running game - which is inexperienced with junior Jaren Hayes and senior Tyrell Dortch being moved to defense - and that has limited his and Knott's catches and kept them blocking.

"We've been involved. It might not look like it, but we're trying to get a running game going," Randall said. "But we're getting our catches."

In 2003, Knott caught 31 passes for 306 yards and two touchdowns, while Randall had 21 catches for 218 yards and two scores. Both players want to up their production to aid in their NFL dreams, and the spring has been used to focus on correcting their shortcomings.

For Knott, losing weight - 20 pounds, specifically - was the goal of the spring so he could improve his quickness and route running.

Knott has done just that, spending 20 minutes a day on a StairMaster and altering his eating. But Knott contends his eating habits haven't changed drastically.

"I wouldn't call it a diet. I was just eating salad with a lot of ranch and everything on it," Knott said. "I was eating sandwiches with no condiments, just meat and bread.

"I still filled myself up. I just drank water and diet pop. I don't drink (pop) any longer."

The change in Knott's physique has been well-received by Smith. Physically, Knott has become the type of tight end Smith dreams about, but now the challenge to the Detroit native is to sharpen his new look.

"He's lost about 20 pounds and is looking how we expected him to look," Smith said.

"Now, what he needs to have a good summer, not only to lose the weight, but now he needs to become hard. And that's what we're looking for him to do this summer. He needs to come back as a hard body, and that will happen."

In Randall's case, working on blocking and consistent route running has been his focus. Randall said last season, his ability to make catches was altered by sloppy play.

"Last year, I got open for the ball, but it wasn't crisp," Randall said. "Sometimes, I'd run a route in the third quarter, and it's supposed to be 5 yards and straight in, but it was like 5 yards and curve."

As the leaders of the tight ends, Knott and Randall will be expected to teach the next crop of Spartans tight ends. Their experience is unmatched heading into the 2004 season, but it's production that will be their focus.

"It's real important," Randall said of his senior season. "Me and Eric (Knott) want to get to the NFL. In our last year, we want to leave on a good note. And for our family, play good and look good."

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