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EAST LANSING — Tyler Hunt saw an opening and volunteered his service.
Never mind that the walk-on joined Michigan State football as a kicker and punter. He felt he could contribute elsewhere.
“I remember talking with my brother-in-law, Scott, before I tried out and made the team. He kind of asked me what position I was going to try out for, because I played a bunch of positions growing up,” Hunt said Tuesday. “And I wasn't the biggest, the strongest, and I didn't test well when I first got here. So I decided to try out as a kicker. And then I told him that hopefully that's just a gateway for me to get on the team and that I would switch positions later.”
That moment came when the coaching staff changed, the pandemic began and the Spartans appeared short-staffed at tight end. So Hunt approached Mel Tucker and his staff about moving there.
All he did was play 242 snaps, emerge as the starter over the final three games, run for one of MSU’s two touchdowns on the ground, catch eight passes for 78 yards and become a serviceable blocker. That's stellar for a former specialist, but not quite the type of production coordinator Jay Johnson wants from the position he feels is the MVP of what he wants to do on offense.
Despite the injury-influenced graduation of former starter Matt Dotson, MSU still upgraded its tight end talent in the offseason. Maliq Carr arrived as a transfer from Purdue, freshman Kameron Allen emerged as a young leader after enrolling in January, Connor Heyward started taking reps after spending his first four years at running back and walk-on Powers Warren (the son of Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren) arrived as a walk-on after four years at Mississippi State.
Add in returnees Trenton Gillison, Adam Berghorst, Parks Gissinger, Hunt and fellow former kicker/punter Evan Morris, and Johnson finds himself with a much deeper group from which to choose.
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“The tight end room is exciting,” Johnson said. “We have a lot more kids there, a lot more competition, as we mentioned with all our positions, and they do. I've noticed a huge change in the last week of their play. And their change has been a positive change. Coach (Ted) Gilmore has done a tremendous job that it's really paying off in the run and the pass (game).”
The pure athleticism at the position might be the best it has been in MSU history. Carr — a receiver last year as a true freshman — plans to join Tom Izzo’s basketball team in the winter as a walk-on, and Berghorst pitches for MSU’s baseball team. Gillison, a former four-star recruit, also was a high-level baseball player who initially planned to play for the Spartans. And Hunt, Heyward, Morris, Gissinger (a former defensive end) and Warren (a former wide receiver) all have played multiple positions.
Oh, and Hunt scored a rushing touchdown — a 1-yarder at Iowa — something no MSU running back managed to do last season.
That need for athleticism has become important for tight ends in the current era of prolific passing era; no longer are tight ends simply blocking helpers.
“I think we're a little more athletic, especially at the tight end group,” Hunt said. “We can stretch the defense a little bit more, get some mismatches on some linebackers that don't cover as well in coverage. And, hopefully, it'll open up things where we can get the ball.”
Last season, Hunt, Dotson and Gillison combined for 22 catches and 234 yards receiving, but no touchdown catches in seven games. Dotson originally planned to return for a fifth season but opted to retire before winter workouts. Tommy Guajardo, who did not play as a freshman in 2020, transferred to Bowling Green and former starting fullback Max Rosenthal left for Illinois.
Gillison (6 feet 4, 245 pounds) and Hunt (6-3, 235) provide size and the most returning experience at tight end, with most of Gillison’s 17 catches and 196 yards coming in 2019. That included a strong finish in the Pinstripe Bowl, when he snagged a 64-yarder on a vertical streak from the slot among his four grabs for 88 yards. He caught just five balls for 49 yards last season, watching as Hunt emerged as a reliable target over the middle on sit-down routes.
“I saw a really big opportunity when the whole COVID crisis kind of broke out last summer to just get bigger, stronger and faster,” Hunt said. “And I finally asked to switch positions.”
Heyward (6-foot, 230), who has had ups and downs in the ground game, has shown outstanding hands and had plenty of production catching the ball out of the backfield: 61 receptions for 385 yards and four touchdowns over four seasons. What he lacks in size the former high school linebacker makes up for in toughness and leverage, having established himself as MSU’s best pass-blocking running back in recent years.
And Carr, with his 6-5, 245-pound basketball player body, may be the most intriguing newcomer; he caught one pass for 15 yards in his three games for the Boilermakers last fall while redshirting.
“Maliq, boy, a big athletic body,” Johnson said. “Really, really excited about him continuing to grow and continuing to learn because of his just getting in here a little bit later.”
There's an old axiom that says a new quarterback’s best weapon is a trusty tight end. And with Payton Thorne and Anthony Russo still battling in what Tucker continues to call an “open competition,” Johnson wants to make sure they have strong options on check-downs and hot reads.
“We're looking for good things out of that room,” Johnson said. “And so far, they're on pace to do that.”
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Why Michigan State football may have its most athletic group of TEs