Spartans tight ends change with the times

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The rise of the spread offense in college football has put many of the nation's tight ends on notice.

As more coaches look for quickness before brute strength, tight ends are being forced to reinvent themselves.

"You see a lot of colleges phasing out the tight ends, but we've got to phase out of that, too," Michigan State junior Charlie Gantt said. "We've got to be faster, stronger. We've still got to be big, but we each have to adapt to it."

The Spartans' tight ends are making the adjustments. It's why Gantt can make statements like this and get taken seriously: "I envision a lot more pass-catching opportunities, a lot more different kinds of routes and plays that we can do. Two-, maybe three-tight end sets, that's what I'm hoping for, to get as many tight ends in the game [as possible]."

Michigan State boasts the depth and talent at tight end to make Gantt's wish come true this fall. Gantt returns for his second year as a starter after hauling in 19 receptions and four touchdowns in 2008.

He'll once again be spelled by Garrett Celek, a sophomore who appeared in 12 games last fall, recording six receptions and a touchdown. Talented Clemson transfer Brian Linthicum joins the mix, and heralded recruit Dion Sims also could see the field this fall.

"Especially with Dion coming in, we'll have four solid tight ends, at least two or three used every game, goal-line packages, different formations just to get more out of the offense," Linthicum said.

After running the spread with Drew Stanton, Michigan State has implemented a more conventional system under head coach Mark Dantonio. Last year's Spartans offense was about as vanilla as it gets in college football these days, as running back Javon Ringer carried the load every Saturday.

Michigan State wasn't sure of what it had at tight end following the loss of Kellen Davis, but Gantt showed up during Big Ten play, recording touchdown catches in four games.

"Last year, there was a lot of uncertainty at the tight end position," Gantt said. "They didn't realize we were viable options, and we had to grow to get the confidence that they could throw to us. This year, we know we have talent. We know we have depth. There will be a lot more offensive opportunities for the tight ends."

Many of those opportunities will come in the red zone, and there might not be a better indicator of a team's success than its performance near the goal line. Michigan State tied for fifth in the Big Ten in red zone offense last fall (84.9 percent), scoring 29 touchdowns on 53 trips.

With a new quarterback -- Kirk Cousins or Keith Nichol -- stepping in this fall, the tight ends can ease the transition under center.

"That's our favorite part of the offense, when we get down in the red zone, because there's a really good chance that we're going to get open and the ball's going to fed right to us," said Celek, whose older brother, Brent, played for Dantonio at Cincinnati before moving on to the Philadelphia Eagles. "We've got some plays in there that look pretty good for us. Whenever we get down there, we all get pretty excited."

Route running has been the primary offseason focus for both Gantt and Celek, who proved themselves as blockers last year. Linthicum, who played in a spread offense at Clemson, already knows the athleticism it takes to have success at tight end in today's college football.

"I add a little more experience in that area," Linthicum said. "And Charlie and Celek are both great players, great athletes. We're all starting to become more and more solid overall."