Michigan State football needs TE Matt Dotson to reach potential, catch ball better
This is the fifth in a series previewing three offensive and three defensive players off-the-radar who are critical to Michigan States success in 2019.
EAST LANSING — Brian Lewerke’s pass came to Matt Dotson, right at the goal line.
Michigan State football’s tight end took an out-of-step leap attempting to high-point the ball, placed into a small opening between Arizona State defenders. It rattled off his hands and bounced to a Sun Devil defender for an interception.
That play told the story of Dotson’s 2018 season.
The sophomore led the Spartans’ tight ends with 14 catches, 159 yards and a touchdown. But it was more about the plays the former 4-star recruit and his position group did not make that cost an already struggling offense points and production.
Dotson returns as the only MSU tight end with experience, with Matt Sokol and blocker Chase Gianacakos departed via graduation. And the Spartans need Dotson to begin to reach his potential — and make catches — to help the Spartans move the ball this fall.
When he’s good
Dotson, who has the size and strength to be an adequate blocker in the run game, runs crisp routes and showed athletic ability to get downfield off blocks into open areas of the field.
A week after his Arizona State mishap, Dotson saw a similar pass from Lewerke at the back of the end zone at Indiana. This time, everything was in sync, and Dotson soared skyward along the back of the end zone to pull in ball for his only touchdown of the season. The 11-yard catch that was his only reception of the game and the first by an MSU tight end three games into 2018, as well as one of only two scores from the position all season.
The 6-foot-5, 252-pound Dotson showed ability to stretch the field vertically when he did hang on to the ball. Three of his catches went for more than 15 yards, including a 12-yard out and a 21-yard streak down the seam from Rocky Lombardi against Purdue.
In MSU’s upset win at Penn State, following a turnover, Lewerke went deep down the left sideline as Dotson slipped into a gap in coverage. Dotson absorbed contact as he leaped for the catch, pulling in the ball and getting his feet down despite being hit for an 18-yard completion.
Then in the Redbox Bowl against Oregon, Dotson and Lewerke connected two more times, including a 17-yarder on a third-quarter third down where he ran a sharp route down the seam and took a big hit while making the airborne catch. He also lined up in the slot in the second quarter out of a five-wide set and made a catch in traffic on a slant pattern for 10 yards and a first down.
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When he struggles
Drops — particularly in the red zone — were a significant issue for Dotson. The one in the Arizona State game was a tough play in a tight window. However, in the Spartans’ 9-6 loss at Nebraska, Dotson’s problems got worse and proved costly.
With MSU facing third down in scoring territory during the first quarter, Dotson could not pull in a pass from Lombardi on corner route that glanced off his fingertips for an incompletion. He then let his emotions boil over, jawing with and running into a Cornhuskers defender and getting flagged for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. That backed up the Spartans 15 yards, and Matt Coghlin missed the ensuing field goal attempt.
Then in the fourth quarter of that game, Lombardi scrambled to his right and threaded a pass on the run to Dotson in the back of the end zone. Again, the tight end dropped what would have been a touchdown, crumbling to the turf and pounding the ground while Lombardi flailed his arms in frustration. The Spartans settled for a field goal.
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The good news for Dotson was MSU coaches trusted him to continue throwing the ball his way despite drop issues. The bad news is it came out of the need to try and get any production from the tight ends, with Sokol also experiencing catching and route-running issues.
Dotson enters this season with competition from redshirt freshman Trenton Gillson, another former 4-star recruit with a promising future in an offense that previously had been known for its tight end production. Noah Davis is expected back from injury, and MSU also has New Mexico transfer Jonathan Brys and experimented with fullback Max Rosenthal taking reps there this spring.
That means for Dotson to hang on to a potential starting job, he must show the ability to hang on to the ball.