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What Happened to the Tight End Production?

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2017 was the least productive season for tight ends under Mark Dantonio, and 2018 isn’t starting off any better.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Northwestern Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Throughout the Mark Dantonio era few things have been as consistent as tight end production. It has been a position that the program has seemingly always been able to re-stock and get good production out of, especially in the red zone. But last season and the first two games of this year have been a different story, and one that might tell part of the answer to MSU’s red zone struggles.

Let’s first take a look back at the production from the tight end position throughout the Dantonio era. This takes us all the way back to 2007, and paints a pretty solid picture of consistency. For these I will have the totals plus the main contributors.

2007: 37 receptions, 557 yards, 8 TDs

Kellen Davis- 32 receptions, 513 yards, 6 TDs

Eric Andino- 5 receptions, 44 yards, 2 TDs

2008: 26 receptions, 356 yards, 5 TDs

Charlie Gantt- 19 receptions, 302 yards, 4 TDs

Garrett Celek- 6 receptions, 50 yards, 1 TD

2009: 53 receptions, 747 yards, 7 TDs

Charlie Gantt- 22 receptions, 348 yards, 2 TDs

Brian Linthicum- 20 receptions, 266 yards, 2 TDs

Dion Simms- 11 receptions, 133 yards, 3 TDs

2010: 44 receptions, 548 yards, 4 TDs

Charlie Gantt- 24 receptions, 301 yards, 3 TDs

Brian Linthicum- 18 receptions, 230 yards, 1 TD

2011: 46 receptions, 498 yards, 4 TDs

Brian Linthicum- 31 receptions, 364 yards, 0 TD

Dion Simms- 12 receptions, 99 yards, 3 TDs

Garrett Celek- 3 receptions, 35 yards, 1 TD

2012: 40 receptions, 491 yards, 3 TDs

Dion Simms- 36 receptions, 475 yards, 2 TDs

2013: 28 receptions, 317 yards, 5 TDs

Josiah Price- 17 receptions, 210 yards, 4 TDs

Jamal Lyles- 5 receptions, 58 yards

Andrew Gleichert- 6 receptions, 49 yards, 1 TD

2014: 33 receptions, 459 yards, 6 TDs

Josiah Price- 26 receptions, 374 yards, 6 TDs

Jamal Lyles- 5 receptions, 74 yards

2015: 42 receptions, 529 yards, 7 TD

Josiah Price- 23 receptions, 267 yards, 6 TDs

Jamal Lyles- 8 receptions, 133 yards, 1 TD

Paul Lang- 11 receptions, 129 yards

2016: 52 receptions, 558 yards, 6 TDs

Josiah Price- 38 receptions, 387 yards, 5 TDs

Jamal Lyles- 12 receptions, 145 yards, 1 TD

2017: 26 receptions, 263 yards, 1 TD

Matt Sokol- 21 receptions, 222 yards, 1 TD

Noah Davis- 3 receptions, 22 yards

Matt Dotson- 2 receptions, 19 yards

2018: Have not completed a pass to a tight end through two games

Average season: 39 receptions, 484 yards, 5 TDs

What we can see first is that the 26 receptions by tight ends last season tie a low for the Dantonio era with the 2008 group, while the yardage and the touchdown totals are easily the lowest over that same span. Last year was the first year ever under Mark Dantonio that there weren’t multiple touchdown passes to a tight end.

We can also see that the tight end production was well below that of an average season, and that includes last year in the average.

What is also interesting is that the two other lower production seasons, 2008 and 2013, were then followed by big years the next season. That doesn’t show any sign of being the case through the first two games of this season.

So what has changed? I don’t really know. Jim Bollman has been the tight ends coach for the previous five seasons, and remains in that role today. He was there for Josiah Price’s entire career where he set the school record for touchdown catches by a tight end and finished third in career catches and yards by a tight end.

Both Bollman and Dave Warner have been co-offensive coordinators over that same five year period, so clearly they understand the need to utilize the tight end, especially in the red zone.

Again, you could chalk last year up to breaking in basically an entirely new group of players at the position group, as well as pretty much a new offense overall, but that doesn’t explain the slow start this year.

If you wanted to use the excuse that MSU has such good wide receivers, that there just isn’t enough production to go around, that doesn’t really hold water either. Go back and look at the numbers up top from the 2009-2011 seasons and remember that each of those teams featured at least three players from the following group; Blair White, BJ Cunningham, Mark Dell, Keshawn Martin, Keith Nichol. And then remember Price was on teams with Fowler, Lippett, Kings, Mumphery, Burbridge, and Shelton. MSU has always had good receivers under Dantonio, and the tight ends have still managed to be productive.

Where the lack of production really seems to hurt is in the red zone. Last year the Spartans were 81st in the country in red zone touchdown percentage, cashing in just 58.82% of the time. This year, albeit in a small sample size, that number is down to an even 50%, which ranks 106th out of 129 teams. At some point that number is going to have to improve or this team is going to be in serious trouble.