Each week heading into the fall football season for MSU, The State News will be taking a look into each position group on Mel Tucker’s roster as the Spartans prepare for their third season under the Tucker regime. In this edition, Sam Sklar dives into which tight ends could make some important plays in 2022.
The tight end position was a key one for Michigan State in 2021.
Utilizing a two-man rotation that progressed to three in the second half of the season, MSU got what it needed and more, from a blocking and pass-catching standpoint, from its tight ends.
Redshirt senior Connor Heyward made the position switch from running back to tight end and made it appear seamless with fruitful results. His big body was effective for pass/run blocking, and his experience as a running back and kick returner translated him into a pass-catching weapon. His versatility was intriguing for the next level, and Heyward was selected in the sixth round of the 2022 NFL Draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The two other members of last year’s tight end rotation, Tyler Hunt and Maliq Carr, return to Michigan State with hopes of building upon last season. MSU also brought in senior Daniel Barker, a significant transfer portal pickup from Illinois who certainly will be in the mix.
“I always say, and you guys have heard me say this before, but I feel like the tight end is kind of the MVP because we ask them to do an awful lot,” Offensive coordinator Jay Johnson said in the spring. “They got to run block; they got a pass block; they got to find a way to get open.”
Here is a look at the presumed pecking order for Michigan State’s tight ends:
Remember the Illinois game from 2019? The one Michigan State led 31-10 at the start of the fourth quarter before collapsing for a 37-34 loss in East Lansing? Yeah, that was Barker who caught the game-winning touchdown with five seconds to play.
He had a lucrative four seasons with Illinois, racking up 64 catches for 827 yards and 11 touchdowns, the most scores by a tight end in Illinois history. In 2021, he grabbed 18 passes for 202 yards and four touchdowns.
247Sports ranked Barker as a four-star transfer, tied for the highest Michigan State welcomed this offseason, along with senior defensive end Khris Bogle. Barker was not with MSU in the spring, but an upgrade at quarterback with redshirt junior Payton Thorne could fuel a career year for the talented and experienced tight end.
Carr spent one redshirt season at Purdue before making the switch to Michigan State.
The transfer came with considerable hype, backed by his high school resume. A four-star high school wide receiver from Oak Park, Carr received offers from powerhouse schools such as Georgia, LSU, Texas A&M, Notre Dame, Ohio State and plenty more. But, for Carr, having the ability to play both football and basketball is what drew him to East Lansing.
He didn’t play much to start the 2021 season, sitting behind Heyward and Hunt in the depth chart as he became familiar with the new system. Slowly, his snap count increased, and Carr became more involved in the offense. After just two catches for 10 yards in the first eight games, Carr made six catches for 125 yards in the final five games, spurred by a 28-yard catch-and-run versus his former team.
The sky’s the limit for Carr. He’s a big, athletic freak who could also learn a bit from Barker as he continues to learn the new position. With one Michigan State season under his belt, he’s very likely to catch more than eight passes in 2022.
From walk-on punter to tight end, Hunt can just about do it all and returns to Michigan State for his sixth season.
Hunt made the switch from punter to tight end in 2020 and made eight receptions for 78 yards. He made strides last fall, catching 14 passes for 136 yards and a touchdown before missing the final two games with an injury. Hunt even had that remarkable trick-play 15-yard throw to Thorne down the sideline at Indiana that helped the struggling offense push past the Hoosiers.
It’s unclear how more Hunt can improve in 2022; he’s probably fallen behind Barker and Carr on the depth chart. But for a former walk-on punter in 2017, Michigan State certainly has squeezed much more out of Hunt than many expected.
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Also a highly-touted high school recruit, Nickel and Carr are the future of the Michigan State tight end group. Nickel was an early enrollee this winter and could get a snippet of playing time as soon as this fall.
ESPN lists him as a four-star and No. 10 tight end in the class of 2022, while 247Sports and Rivals list Nickel as a three-star. He comes from Michigan State’s new Georgia recruiting scope, but given the guys ahead of him, MSU has no need to rush him onto the field. Nickel projects to be an impactful addition to the program, but likely not right away.
Michigan State has five other tight ends on its roster. Adam Berghorst, who is also a pitcher on the baseball team, returns for his senior season. Powers Warren, the son of Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren, is back for a sixth season after transferring from Mississippi State. Redshirt junior Jackson Morse did not see game action in 2021 after sitting out in 2020 as a transfer from Davenport. Redshirt junior Evan Morris transitioned from kicker to tight end in 2020 but has only made an impact with occasional kickoff duties. Freshman Michael Masunas is a three-star prospect that will join the team this summer.
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