Michigan State Spartans junior Josiah Price approached the blocking sled as teammates milled around the field following practice last week. He pulled redshirt freshman Matt Sokol, a fellow tight end, out of the way to demonstrate proper form and then looked over Sokol’s shoulder to make sure the younger player was doing things properly.
Price has made more trips to the end zone (10) than any returning player on the Spartans roster. If Michigan State puts together another season as one of the nation’s Top 10 offenses, he’s likely to make many more touchdown trips in 2015. Price is on a short list of options to become quarterback Connor Cook’s favorite target this fall -- good news for the team’s four other scholarship tight ends, who stand to become a bigger part of weekly game plan by association.
It's not rare to see college players offering post-practice pointers to their understudies, but co-offensive coordinator Jim Bollman says his tight ends this year are as selfless and helpful as any group he's coached. Price, along with upperclassmen Paul Lang and Jamal Lyles, has taken a keen interest in pushing his younger counterparts to improve this summer. Their logic: the better the group performs, the more it will be part of the offense, which means more opportunities for all of them. What’s good for the gander in this case is also good for Price, its top goose.
“We’ve got a lot of good tight ends here. It’s a fun group of guys to go to work with every day,” Price said. “Today so many teams don’t really use the tight end that much, or if they do they use one in a spread. We really spread the wealth between our tight ends and a lot of guys get reps.”
Head coach Mark Dantonio said he’s seen Price grow as leader leading into his third season on the field. In years past he wouldn’t have had the gumption or the confidence to correct another teammate’s form.
Price is a typical Michigan State recruit. Initially overlooked by the big schools, the Spartans plucked him from a small farm town in the middle of Indiana. He towered head and shoulders -- literally and figuratively -- above his high school teammates and competition, so coming to East Lansing was a wake-up call when it came to blocking Big Ten-sized defensive linemen. Despite being a natural route runner and receiver, he questioned whether he had bitten off more than he was going to be able to chew.
“I used to be a really bad blocker,” he said. “That’s something that doesn’t come as natural to me as catching the football does. Now I can definitely hold my own.”
Confidence came from experience, but also from watching Tony Lippett -- last season’s Big Ten receiver of the year -- squash his own self-doubts. Lippett struggled with drops and with performing on the bigger stages early in his career. He eventually overcame that to become the Spartans’ most important playmaker in last fall’s 11-2 season.
Lippett is gone now, as is running back Jeremy Langford. That duo accounted for more than 40 percent of Michigan State’s total yardage in 2014. The door is open for new playmakers to take their place, and Price is in as good of a position as any of his teammates to be that guy.
“Some of the skill guys that have left were big parts of the offense,” Bollman said. “Everybody else has to step up to make up for that, and our group is part of that. There’s only one ball, but there could certainly be more opportunities as a result of that.”
Price is doing his best to make sure those opportunities come his way. This summer he watched film of star NFL tight ends like Jason Witten and Rob Gronkowski. He studied the small things they did to get open at the top of their routes. He also charted the packages and formations that led to success for those guys and suggested to his coaches that Michigan State add some of them to the playbook.
The size of Price’s playbook this fall depends on how many different jobs he can do. Bollman said ideally all of his tights would be interchangeable in all situations – blocking and passing. Price is furthest along that path, which means Michigan State should have no problem keeping him busy this fall.