The tight end position looks to be one of the more intriguing parts of the Michigan State offense in 2022 due to multiple substantial changes compared to 2021.
The Spartans lost all-purpose tight end/H-back in Connor Heyward to the NFL during the offseason, meaning Michigan State will have to look elsewhere to replace Heyward’s key contributions to the offense both in blocking schemes and in downfield production.
Redshirt sophomore Maliq Carr appears to be next in line for a featured role, with many expecting him to break out following multiple flashes of high-level play last season. However, his blocking must improve to really lock down the role as a starter. Sixth-year senior Tyler Hunt could also steal a decent amount of playing time, as he returns the most production at the position from last season.
Despite Heyward’s departure to the NFL, the Spartans will have a number of options at the tight end spot this season due to some key additions during the offseason. Incoming transfer Daniel Barker (Illinois) is expected to earn plenty of time on the field, while true freshmen Jack Nickel and Michael Masunas serve as depth options and will give glimpses into the potential future for the position group.
The group certainly features as much depth as Michigan State fans have seen at the tight end position in quite some time, and it will be interesting to see how things shake out during the season. With that being said, let’s take a look at what the group might look like come Sept. 2 versus Western Michigan and beyond.
Maliq Carr, redshirt sophomore
Carr appears to have been anointed by many Michigan State fans as the next man up for the starting tight end job, and there are several indications that he is ready to step up. Listed at 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds, he certainly is a big enough body to compete at the Big Ten level, but Carr has an advantage over the other tight ends on the roster as well. As a two-sport athlete, Carr has the athleticism to use his big frame to his advantage and put himself in the position to succeed. A big body and the athleticism to be a two-sport athlete is a rare and potentially game-changing combination for a college tight end.
Another reason for Carr’s popularity among the fan base is the way he finished out the 2021 campaign. Although his total stats don’t jump off the page (eight catches for 135 yards in 12 games), they are a bit misleading unless you take into account that he had just two catches for 10 total yards going into the month of November. From Nov. 1 until the end of the season, including the Spartans’ 31-21 Peach Bowl victory over the Pittsburgh Panthers, Carr caught six passes for 125 yards, ripping off several chunk plays including a season-long 40-yard reception against Penn State.
However, as mentioned, it is his blocking that could potentially hinder his spot on the depth chart. A former wide receiver at Purdue, Carr isn’t a natural in-line blocker and is still learning how to be effective there. If he is able to grasp the blocking aspect, he will indeed play a lot of snaps in 2022, and could end up leading the tight ends group in receptions and receiving yardage.
Carr’s big play ability has led to much excitement among the MSU fan base, as well as heightened expectations for his sophomore campaign.
Daniel Barker, graduate senior
Barker is probably the biggest threat to cut into Carr’s playing time, as Barker brings much needed experience and production to the table. Barker is also a much more complete tight end who has shown ability both as a blocker and wide receiver. Still, it would be easy to see Barker and Carr (or Hunt) on the field together at times in two-tight end sets.
In his four seasons at Illinois, Barker tallied 64 catches for 827 yards and 11 touchdowns, giving him the most experience of anyone in the position group by a wide margin. Barker knows what it takes to be a starting caliber tight end in the Big Ten, which cannot be said for anyone else in the group. Michigan State fans unfortunately are well acquainted with Barker’s red zone ability, as he hauled in the game winning touchdown grab to complete Illinois’ 37-34 comeback victory over the Spartans in 2019.
Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker expressed his faith in Barker, saying that he believes Barker will fit right in with the Spartan program.
“Obviously, he’s a playmaker, a run-and-catch tight end,” Tucker said about Barker, via MLive. “He’s a guy that wants the ball. He’s a competitor, he’s a hard-worker, he fits our program very well.”
Listed at 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds, Barker is about as physically imposing as Carr, giving the Spartans multiple big targets to throw to in short yardage situations when necessary. The competition between the two of them to be the featured tight end in the offense will be fierce, with both players likely seeing a large amount of playing time either way.
Tyler Hunt, graduate senior
Hunt is an intriguing part of the position group, especially considering he wasn’t even a part of it until the 2020 season.
Originally a punter, Hunt’s build (listed at 6-foot-3, 235 pounds) and athleticism gave him the opportunity to earn playing time elsewhere on the field, as evidenced by the coachign staff’s decision to turn him into a tight end. While Hunt hasn’t put up flashy numbers in his time as a tight end, he serves his purpose as a blocker and a sneaky target for quarterback Payton Thorne.
According to Michigan State tight ends coach Ted Gilmore, Hunt has added weight to his already adequately-sized build to possibly give the Spartans another big-bodied target.
“He’s bigger than he’s ever been,” Gilmore said, via Rivals. “He is holding the 245 pounds, 250 pounds, holding it.”
Compiling 14 catches for 136 yards and one touchdown last season, Hunt had the most production of any Spartan returning from the position group last year. However, with a season-long reception of just 16 yards, he serves mainly as a short yardage target in the passing game. He has recorded 22 for 214 yards and two total touchdowns (one rushing) throughout his career.
While Hunt likely won’t compete with Carr and Barker for the top spot, expect to see No. 97 on the field a good amount this season.
True Freshmen: Jack Nickel and Michael Masunas
The Spartans bring in two freshmen to the tight end room this season, with Nickel and Masunas both coming in as three-star recruits, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings.
Due to Nickel’s early enrollment status, they are at very different stages in their developments with the team. Masunas did not arrive until the summer and is probably a little bit more than a relative unknown. A redshirt wouldn’t be surprising for Masunas’ this season, allowing him the time he needs to catch up and properly acquaint himself with the playbook and the offensive scheme.
Nickel’s early enrollment allowed him extra time to start learning the playbook and put work in with the athletic training staff and during spring football, which Gilmore has expressed his approval of.
“He is starting to change his body, so he’s getting in better shape,” Gilmore said. “Coach Novak and those guys are already doing a terrific job with him in the four or five months that we’ve had him on campus. You can see the transformation that is happening, so we’re pleased with that.”
Despite this, Gilmore hints that Nickel might see a redshirt in his first year as well, giving him more opportunity to learn and prepare before seeing gameplay.
“He’s fine. He’s a young man that hopefully we will have the time to develop him and not have to play him too soon. The effort is there, the mindset is there,” Gilmore said.
Others on the roster:
- Powers Warren, graduate senior, 6-foot-4, 230 pounds
- Evan Morris, redshirt junior, 6-foot-5, 240 pounds (also plays kicker/can handle kickoffs)
- Jackson Morse, redshirt junior, 6-foot-3, 230 pounds