(Author's note: Sooo, every once in a while I'm gonna turn into Heck Dormant. But you can expect a pretty good content bomb out of me this next week and a half, and a post or two a week during the football/basketball season. If I disappear for a few weeks around November or December, it's probably just a busy schedule.)
I imagine that last year's tight end preview probably could have looked quite a bit like this one does. But any hopes of a lot of two, or even three, tight end sets, went out the window when Celek went down and Sims was suspended. Linthicum spent a sizable chunk of his PT motioning in or out of the backfield to try and cover for the injuries at FB. But now, minus Gantt, the band is back together. Can this unit finally cash in on all their potential in the MSU offense?
The Swiss Army Knife
Brian Linthicum (6'5, 245 lbs, Sr.)
2010: 18 catches for 230 yards (12.78 YPC) 1 TD
2009: 20 catches for 266 yards (13.3 YPC), 2 TDs
2007: 11 catches for 76 yards (6.91 YPC), 3 TDs
I predict Linthicum will be the starter because of his versatility (though admittedly 'starter' is a little fluid here, and I wouldn't be shocked to see a 40-30-30 playing time breakdown between the top three). In a run heavy, play action oriented pro-style offense, if you want to be the number one TE, you have to have all three sides of the coin: you have to be able to run block, you have to be able to occasionally pass block, and you have to be able to catch, particularly in the red zone.
Linthicum as 1. as a proven senior and 2. someone who Cousins and Dantonio trust in these three roles, will almost certainly be the guy in this group, provided he can stop punching Englishmen in their smug, limey, faces.
At first blush, the declining TD totals would be concerning. But you have to understand Linthicum in terms of what went on around him on the depth chart. After the 2009 season, it was an open question as to which of Gantt or Linthicum (or Sims) would emerge as the number one receiving target out of the tight end position. In the end, Linthicum's well-rounded abilities worked against him on the stat sheet, as he was pulled away from receiving duties in order to cover for injuries. But we already knew Linthicum could catch. Seven TDs in 49 catches is very solid production, as is two years of 12.5+ YPC. The hope is that Linthicum's time in more of a blocking role can transfer to help assist a depleted and green O-Line. He doesn't have the single dimension upside of either Celek or Sims, but Dantonio has always loved a player who presents multiple problems to an opposing defense.
Gantt got the glory and pub last year with Little Giants, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if Linthicum matched Gantt's senior year production with a steady 20+ catches, 250+ yards, and 3+ TDs, and equal blocking to what Gantt offered. If he stays out of further trouble with the law and produces, he should end the year with pretty good late round NFL draft prospects.
The Other Worldly One
Dion Sims (6'5, 276 lbs RS So.)
2009: 11 catches, 133 yards (12.09YPC), 3 TDs
Players like Dion Sims don't come around very often. Most teams usually have one guy who, physically, is just eye-poppingly different than his teammates: bigger, stronger, faster. But these players are usually linebackers, defensive ends, wide receivers (See: Will Gholston, Lawrence Thomas, Charles Rogers). Rarely does this person show up at tight end. But Michigan State boasts just such a player in Dion Sims. Sims is the type of player that causes NFL draft analysts to start making up words like largeability, explosivasion, and shiyiiiit.
But after a promising freshman year, well, I think most of us know what happened. Sims' legal troubles suspended him for the year, and he took a redshirt. Now he comes back to the team cleared of serious charges (in fact, the judge said he would personally come to East Lansing to persuade Coach D to reinstate him), and with three years of eligibility, but it remains to be seen if the team and coaches fully trust him. The early signs are good (he's listed as tied for first string for TE and he had 4 catches for 63 yards and 2 TDs in the spring game), but I need to see to believe.
This year, I expect to see Sims deployed as MSU's ultimate weapon in the red zone. As the field gets shorter, he's much too big for the average member of a secondary to cover and too quick for many linebackers. Counting his Spring Game (Dicey, I know, but we work with our limited data) he has 5 TD s in 15 catches which, needless to say, is unbelievable.
The reason why I'm not convinced Sims can grab the starting role quite yet is his blocking. I don't remember Sims freshman year in great detail (though I do recall an excellent TD catch in the Minnesota game), but I also don't remember him doing a lot of notable blocking, either in run or pass support. He certainly has the size to act like a mini-OT, but I don't know if the skill set is there yet. I'll hope for a pleasant surprise.
Sims is ultimately a player with a lot of variance. With a year off football, he has a low basement and a high ceiling. Him getting only spot duty as he gets caught behind Linthicum and Celek on the depth chart this season wouldn't shock me. Nor would a breakout year with him being a TD vulture and achieving one "Oh my science..." type play per game (see: him running over Isaiah Lewis like he wasn't there and then beating everyone in a footrace down the sideline in the Spring Game). Whatever his role this year, with two seniors graduating in 2011, it's not too crazy to say that Dion Sims, provided he can avoid further trouble with the law, has a bright future as a two year starter for MSU in 2012-2013. Or maybe sooner.
The Stealthy Rhinoceros
Garrett Celek (6'5 252 lbs, Sr.)
2010: 2 catches for 17 yards (8.5 YPC), 0 TD
2009: 3 catches for 33 yards (11 YPC), 1 TD
2008: 6 catches for 50 yards (8.33 YPC), 1 TD
Garrett Celek is who he is at this point. His status as probably our team's best blocker at the position will earn him time in MSU's multiple two tight end sets. He may further be called on to shore up our inexperienced offensive line with an extra blocker, or be applied to help with an especially dangerous DE or LB. He is also an underrated, but not outstanding, receiver. After being lined up again and again to block, on the rare occasions that he does go out for the pass, I remember him always being able to slip behind defenders and find real estate, possibly due to defense's being lulled to sleep on his receiving ability. He is a rhinoceros of a blocker no doubt, but he's a stealthy one.
My only concern with Celek is that shoulder injury. When a player has an injury that's knocks them out for 11 football games as Celek did in 2010, I'm always a little hesitant to declare them 'back'. His spring game was solid (2 catches, 28 yards), but what happens the first time he lays out for a pass and takes a hard hit on that repaired shoulder?
I hope Celek can stay healthy because make no mistake, there will be times when this team will need his contributions out of the TE spot. But though I see him as a solid 2 or 3 on the depth chart, I can't really see him moving up to the #1 spot the way I can with the other two players.
Derek Hoebing (6'7, 270 lbs RS So.)
If Dion Sims is going to slide into the Linthicum/Gantt receiving tight end role in MSU's system, Hoebing seems a good bet to take the reins on Celek's blocking tight end job. I've never seen him play anything other than special teams last year, but he certainly has the size to clear the way for RBs and provide a big target in the flats.
He came in as a sleeper recruit in the heralded 2009 class. His team bio says he won an award for 'Lineman of the Year' on his high school team. I'm not sure whether that offensive or defensive line, as he was listed as playing tight end and linebacker in high school. If it is for the offensive line that only bodes better for his potential in our two TE sets.
Paul Lang (6'5, 247 lbs. Fr.)
Lang was another sleeper recruit in last year's class. He was hurt most of his junior year, and committed to the Spartan's early in the summer possibly hurting his standing with the recruitniks. But by all accounts, he is a heck of an athlete, who in high school was arguably more impressive on the basketball court than the football field. Which for the record, I don't really have a problem with (see: Dion Sims, Antonio Gates, others)
But he also showed impressive receiving ability in limited targets, and is particularly running strong with the ball after the catch, and running over or through would be tacklers. He played for a team that ran the ball the majority of the time and thus should come in with above average blocking skills. I trust D's eye on this one.
If this bunch can stay off of injury tables and courtroom benches they're probably the top TE unit in the conference, and, other than the offensive guards, is probably the last group I get to be all good news and sunshine about. With all the uncertainty surrounding the offensive tackles, if this group can draw the constant attention of ends, outside linebackers, and safeties, I think everyone would feel a lot better about our potential on passing downs. No one can say the talent isn't there. But just like last season, they have to come out and prove it.
Yikes, I need to start getting the rest of these groups done rapido-quick. I've got a little over a week, for what, seven position groups? So expect about one a day as I'm going to try and get these previews done double-time. The Offensive Tackles should be up tomorrow.