With Barker in the fold, Gilmore 'demanding' continued improvement from TEs
East Lansing, Mich. - Michigan State’s process of scouting prospects in the transfer portal can be deep and exhaustive.
But it wasn’t that way with Daniel Barker.
When the senior tight end from Illinois entered his name into the portal on Jan. 18, the Spartans pounced quickly.
By Jan. 31, the Spartans had gained a transfer commitment from him. And now Barker, a fifth-year senior capitalizing on an extra year of eligibility via the COVID waiver, is viewed as a key offensive cog for Michigan State as preparations for the 2022 season continue.
“Oh yeah,” Michigan State tight ends coach Ted Gilmore said when asked if Barker is looking like a veteran during workouts and team activities. “No doubt. We are expecting big things from him.”
Barker, a native of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., had 64 career catches in four seasons at Illinois.
Last fall, he had 18 catches for 202 yards and four touchdowns.
At 6-foot-4, 250 pounds, with 11 career touchdowns, Barker was an easy evaluation as an upperclassman transfer.
“For them, their recruiting process is different,” Gilmore said of graduate transfers. “They’re men. They’ve been through it. So they have done their homework as much as we did our homework on them, and he (Barker) knows there’s a need, there’s an opportunity.”
Connor Heyward moved on to the NFL after hauling in 35 receptions in his first year as a tight end, last season for the Spartans. That productivity caught Barker’s eye.
Barker briefly entered the NFL Draft, but withdrew his name and entered the portal in order to play one more year of college football in hopes of improving his NFL stock.
With Heyward moving on, and the Spartans rising as a program that wishes to feature the tight end position, Barker and Michigan State became a match.
“He’s proven,” Gilmore said. “He’s spent a lot of time in the Big Ten. It’s not too big for him. You know what you’re getting. That was an easy evaluation. We had a ton of film to watch. So I’m happy.”
Barker is tied for first in Illinois history for career touchdown catches by a tight end, including a 5-yard grab against Michigan State with :05 seconds left to lift the Illini to a comeback victory over the Spartans in 2019.
Other Barker TDs at Illinois included:
* A bubble screen as a slot receiver, which he turned into a 38-yard scoring strike against Penn State when he eluded two tacklers down the sideline.
* An 18-yard over route against UConn.
* A 10-yard post into cover-four traffic against Charlotte.
* A 15-yard play action pass to the flat, coming out of the backfield as a fullback and then beating a linebacker and safety to the edge in turning the corner against Texas San Antonio.
* A 24-yarder into the cover four seam against Iowa.
* A 30-yard, late-release sneak route to the back side, getting loose against man-to-man for a rambling TD against Minnesota.
On those plays, Illinois looked for Barker as a go-to guy in the red zone. The Illini schemed ways to get him open as a primary target, sometimes with new-wrinkle creativity.
Michigan State can do that, too.
“I’m excited about him,” Gilmore said. “He just got here, and everything I’m seeing so far, hey, we’re going to be okay.”
With Heyward moving on, Barker moving in, and an interesting mix of proven players, rising sophomores and promising freshmen in the tight ends room, Gilmore is expecting overall improvement from the position in 2022.
“They have no choice because we are going to demand it,” He said. “And they have the ability to do that.”
HUNT’S BACK AND BIGGER
Tyler Hunt (6-3, 245, 6-Sr., Gobles, Mich.) is back for his sixth year of eligibility. He had 14 catches for 136 yards last year, with one touchdown.
“He’s bigger than he’s ever been,” Gilmore said. “He is holding the 245 pounds, 250 pounds, holding it.”
Hunt was listed at 235 last year.
“The way he competes and strains, just those 10 pounds are going to be a big difference, especially in the run game and who we have to block,” Gilmore said. “But I’m lucky and happy that we’ve got him. I’m very excited that we were able to convince him to come back for his COVID senior year, because we need him.”
How much convincing did it take to get Hunt to come back?
“Not a lot,” Gilmore said. “It really didn’t take a lot because he feels like he can take another step. And the way the season ended for him, he was beat up a little bit. He had some off-season things, got him healthy, he’s ready to go.
CARR ON THE RISE
Maliq Carr (6-5, 245, Soph., Inkster, Mich./Oak Park High) is one of the more interesting prospects in the program.
Carr carries the athleticism of a former four-star wide receiver, and the frame of a blossoming tight end.
After redshirting at Purdue in 2020 and transferring to Michigan State last year, Carr had eight catches for 135 yards in 2021. Seven of those catches came in the last six games, including two catches for 35 yards in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.
Carr has the speed to threaten the seam downfield, and the hands to make plays above the rim. His blocking skills were not great last year during his first season at the tight end position. But there is progress in that area, and all areas, Gilmore said.
“He’s at a point now where he has totally embraced the change,” Gilmore said. “He’s doing a terrific job. Now it’s about taking that next step, taking a jump, elevating, whether it’s the run game or whatever it is. It starts with his mindset and he is in a good place mentally right now, so I’m looking forward to this fall. I’m expecting big things from him.”
Gilmore isn't alone. WWE, the pro wrestling entertainment juggernaut, signed Carr as one of 15 college athletes as part of the organizations new “Next in Line” NIL developmental program.
Carr will receive payments from WWE and gain access to the WWE performance center in Orlando, Fla., as his college football career continues.
“It is still very early in Maliq’s career, but considering his unique blend of size, athleticism, and versatility, we fully expect him to have multiple professional opportunities at the end of his collegiate career,” James Kimball, WWE senior vice president of global talent strategy and development said in a WWE press release. “Our goal and intent through this NIL collaboration is to earn a seat at that table by delivering a partnership that only WWE is capable of.”
JACK NICKEL AHEAD OF SCHEDULE AS EARLY ENROLLEE
Jack Nickel took positive steps during spring practice as a mid-year freshman enrollee.
At 6-4, 235, Nickel came to Michigan State as a three star recruit, ranked No. 63 in Georgia by Rivals.com.
“He is made up of all the right things, and we knew that in the recruiting process,” Gilmore said. “I’m pleased with where he’s at.”
Nickel turned in a pair of solid receptions in the spring scrimmage, and looked more like a college tight end than a guy who should have still been in high school.
“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.
“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.”
Fellow incoming freshman Michael Masunas (6-4, 241, Chandler, Ariz.) is on campus, going through summer workouts, and eager to put on the pads in August.
THE REST OF THE ROOM
Three former Michigan State tight ends entered the transfer portal in the past 12 months: Parks Gissinger, Trenton Gillison and Kameron Allen. Allen was the only Mel Tucker-era recruit of the bunch. He landed at SMU. Gillison is at Youngstown State and Gissinger is at Furman.
With Hunt unavailable during spring practice, Adam Berghorst playing baseball, and Barker yet to enroll, the Spartans were thin at the position for their March and April sessions.
“We didn’t have a lot of guys,” Gilmore said. “But the ones that were there, guys that were going through the everyday grind of spring ball, we made gains, we made steps. Powers Warren got better, Evan Morris got better. We got better, and that’s all we can ask.”
Berghorst’s rank in the pecking order is a bit of a question mark. He played in six games last year (39 snaps), mostly on special teams.
He didn’t see playing time on the baseball team this spring, after starting six games as a pitcher the previous year.
He is playing summer baseball with the Battle Creek Battle Jacks of the Northwoods League this summer, and tells SpartanMag he is working as a reliever right now and will become a starter for Battle Creek when he gets his pitch count back up.
He told SpartanMag in the spring that his goals and objectives with the Battle Jacks wouldn’t have an impact on his goals for the football season.
Meanwhile, Morris (6-5, 240, R-Jr., Elsie, Mich.) and Warren (6-4, 230, Sr., Minnetonka, Minn.) are a pair of veteran walk-ons who are knocking on the door for the playing group, Gilmore said.
Morris is a former kickoff specialist. He kicked five touchbacks in 11 attempts as a freshman in 2019. His role as a kicker decreased in the past two seasons, although he had four kickoffs in the snow against Penn State while the Spartans experienced injury problems at the position.
Warren, a transfer from Mississippi State, saw eight snaps on offense last season, but had an air of improved functionality this spring.
“We don’t care how you got there, once you’re there, if you put in the time, put in the work and show you can play, we’re going to play you,” Gilmore said.