Tony Lippett played a huge role for the Michigan State Spartans the last couple years, and his 2014 season was one that helped the offense become one of the best in school history.
Lippett is gone now, though, and that calls for certain players to step up. It also gives seasoned players the opportunity to excel at the next rung of the offensive ladder.
And rather than focus on a wide receiver, quarterback Connor Cook’s favorite weapon this year might be tight end Josiah Price.
Price, a 6-foot-4, 250-pound junior who was an All-Big Ten honorable mention in 2014, leads any MSU receiver on the current roster with 10 touchdowns in 27 career games — including 12 career starts.
To add to the hype, he has been one of 15 underclassmen named to the John Mackey Award preseason watch list for the nation’s best tight end.
And why shouldn’t he be? Cook has looked at Price in the red zone and on third downs. When you couple Price’s good hands and big body, he becomes an obvious target that is a mismatch for many defenses: he’s too quick for many linebackers, but he’s too big for a plethora of defensive backs.
With his six touchdowns last season, Price is now third all-time in TD receptions for tight ends in MSU history.
“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, according to ESPN’s Dan Murphy. “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.”
Murphy explained how Price watched video of Rob Gronkowski and Jason Witten during the offseason, studying the nuances of their games: how they run routes and how they get open at the end of their routes. To get even more technical, Price charted packages and formations that led to the players’ successes — and he relayed such information to the MSU coaching staff.
Co-offensive coordinator Jim Bollman doesn’t shy away from the fact that MSU lost some players and needs others to play bigger roles in 2015.
“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 didn’t just watch video or chart play diagrams; he hung out more with Cook and developed an even better relationship, on and off the field.
As Matt Charboneau of the Detroit News wrote, the Price and Cook examined how their levels of production could increase this upcoming season.
“We sat down and watched every pass to me,” Price said. “I think there were 52 and we completed like 27 of them, or something like that. We want a better completion percentage between us because that is only like 50 percent. I’d definitely like to see that ratio closer to 70 percent.
“Sometimes the (missed) plays were my fault, sometimes he missed me. But that is stuff you do in the offseason to try and get better at your game.”
Jamal Lyles presents another versatile option behind Price, but make no mistake: Price is the go-to tight end on this team.
Price can catch more than the 26 balls he caught in 2014, and most would say he needs to in order for the offense to keep rolling and make up for missing pieces.
His 374 yards could also be exceeded if he becomes more than just a third down option, or a red zone threat; he can be a threat on every down, and Cook trusts his ability. He has to.
“My job is to go out and make a play every time the ball is thrown my way,” Price said. “The more confidence Connor has in me and the more the coaches see me making plays the more I think I’ll be used in the offense. So I don’t know if (the offense) will be a ton different, but I think I’m a more confident tight end this year, especially in the passing game.”