Every year is supposed to be a breakout year for Ohio State’s tight ends. This season, that might actually be the case.
With athletic playmakers like Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett occupying the position, mixed with Urban Meyer’s offensive philosophies, the potential for a cocktail of points and highlights seems inevitable.
The duo only combined for 17 catches and 217 yards a year ago, but the offense wasn’t a well-oiled machine either. The first season in the system had numerous roadblocks along the way. Entering Year 2, the level of confidence and togetherness has hit a new high.
“Last spring we were putting in a new offense, with the new coaching staff coming in, and so the emphasis for me was on figuring it out, learning it and getting confident with it," Vannett said. “Now I've got that whole year behind me where I understand it and I can just go out and play the game and be confident. And I am definitely more confident this year than I was last spring.”
Said Heuerman: “We can do a lot, between Nick and I. We have a great combination of tight ends. That is huge. You can’t just play with one tight end. We’re getting better every day. It’ll be a good year.”
According to Heuerman, who’s developed quite a reputation for being a jokester, the tight ends are No. 1 on the offense’s pecking order – ahead of Braxton Miller. When Heuerman made the claim, he did so with a straight face. It quickly gave way to a smile, though.
The current situation Heuerman finds himself in wasn’t exactly what he signed up for. But he isn’t going to start complaining anytime soon. Jim Tressel was the head coach when Heuerman was being recruited out of Naples, Fla. Tight end wasn’t exactly a glamour position under the old regime. Recovering a fumble was the most likely way to touch the football.
In a Meyer-led offense, the viewpoint is a tad bit different.
“A lot of people say this is the best offense in the country for the tight end,” Heuerman said.
“It’s fun. No one was sure of it or what was going on last season. Once you get it down, though, it’s a lot of fun. You get to do a whole lot of things you wouldn’t normally do in a pro-style offense.”
At Florida, Meyer helped groom Aaron Hernandez into one of the top tight ends in college. Hernandez caught nearly 70 passes during the 2009 season and has since gone on to a noteworthy NFL career in New England, teamed with Rob Gronkowski. In the past decade, the most receptions for an Ohio State tight end is 33, by Ben Hartsock in 2003.
And it’s not just Meyer. Offensive coordinator Tom Herman sees the value in tight ends as well. So much so that in 2011, Rice tight end James Casey caught 111 passes with Herman calling plays.
Being compared to Gronkowski could go two ways for Heuerman – on and off the field. Former Buckeye Reid Fragel, who doubles as Heuerman’s roommate and best friend, made the comparison recently on Twitter. Along with being the best tight end in the NFL, Gronkowski makes even more headlines for his off-the-field antics.
Heuerman isn’t known as a troublemaker and he’s been a model citizen away from the football field during his two years in Columbus. But he played a prank on tight ends coach Tim Hinton recently that put himself in Gronkowski territory.
“He was turning red. He was on his phone, saying, ‘What are we going to do?’”
Hinton is always wary when Heuerman and his brother, Mike, a tight end at Notre Dame, hang out together, because they tend to get rowdy. As luck would have it, Mike decided to drive his new car to Columbus this past weekend. When Hinton found out, he urged Jeff to be careful and not get out of hand.
Mickey Marotti and Ryan Stamper took it from there. Knowing that Hinton would believe a tale about the brothers getting in trouble, the two staff members told him that the Heuerman brothers stumbled upon an attempted theft of their car and decided to get into an altercation.
It left the wrongdoers on the sidewalk. The problem was they were able to identify their assailants. Heuerman would be arrested at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, Hinton was told by Marotti and Stamper.
“(Hinton) had his head in his hands,” Heuerman said, laughing. “He was turning red. He was on his phone, saying, ‘What are we going to do?’”
Then Heuerman broke the news to him: “April Fools.”
“He was so happy afterward, he couldn’t even be mad because he was so happy it wasn’t true.”
He’ll grow happier with each reception, yard and touchdown Heuerman – and Vannett – has come fall. The production is leaving one station marked “expectation” and entering the next titled “must.”
Heuerman and Vannett not only have the talent to reach the top level of tight ends in the country, but they also have the size to match those skills, stretching defenses and keeping linebackers, cornerbacks and safeties perplexed.
“That to me what is what’s exciting about that position, having guys with long length and strength,” Hinton said.
Each is 6-foot-6 and in the 250-pound range. They come included with blocking and pass-catching services, and versatility that makes opposing offensive coordinators drool and defensive coordinators sweat.
Heuerman already flashed his array of talents on an 80-yard touchdown catch-and-run during the spring.
“I’m just excited about being more of an every-down tight end,” he said.
“I think I have improved the most in the passing game. Last year Jake was the focus of the passing game with regard to the H-back/tight end players. This year in practice I'm seeing more balls and running more routes. And I like it.”
“The bottom line is we have a very large volume of stuff to do,” Hinton said. “We need a great group of guys who want to absorb it, because their duties are endless.”