“This could be the year” and “Wait till next year” are phrases commonly heard at Wrigley Field and Cleveland Browns Stadium, or any other Cleveland sports venue. It’s also been a staple at Ohio State’s fall camp for what seems like decades. But for the Buckeyes it doesn’t relate to the team, per se. Instead, it’s reserved for the tight ends.
During the John Cooper era, tight ends were utilized as playmakers. Cedric Saunders, Rickey Dudley, John Lumpkin and others enjoyed relevance throughout their college careers, not acting as a sixth offensive lineman. The trio is inside the top 10 for career receptions by an Ohio State tight end, a feat no tight end from the Jim Tressel era can claim.
Once again, the regular season is approaching and tight ends are entering the discussion. Could this be the year? Well, it appears their time has finally come. Urban Meyer has never been shy about inserting tight ends into key roles. At Florida – and at Rice, under Tom Herman – the position was one of utmost importance.
Aaron Hernandez led the 2009 Gators with 68 receptions and won the John Mackey Award. One year earlier, the Owls’ James Casey had a team-high 111 catches for 1,329 yards and 13 touchdowns – incredible stats for a tight end. He parlayed it into a successful NFL career.
There aren’t just high expectations accompanying Ohio State’s season, there are visions of a national title. Defense might win championships, but it takes an efficient offense to jumpstart the process. Braxton Miller and his friends at running back and wide receiver are familiar names and faces. Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett – who are these guys? Buckeye Nation – and others – is about to find out.
Meyer says “they’re the best I’ve had.” Tight ends coach Tim Hinton said they’re 1 and 1A. Shortly, Heuerman and Vannett will no longer be the secret weapons they’re designed to be because they’ll become part of the scouting report.
“When 86 (Heuerman) and 81 (Vannett) are out there, I feel really comfortable,” Hinton said.
Heuerman and Vannett both possess size – they’re each 6-foot-6 – and an ability to block pass rushers and set themselves up as passing targets. Each of them has the physique of the new-age tight ends that have popped up all across the college landscape and NFL, as the position has become a must-have.
Before Heuerman and Vannett were sought-after football recruits, they had another sport that captured their attention. Heuerman was a star hockey player, while Vannett thrived on the basketball court. But when each was faced with choosing one sport, football became the obvious choice. They’re showing why it was an easy decision.
“I challenge anybody in the country to have two better tight ends than we have,” Herman said.
The tandem has been so impressive that the coaches have no choice but to place them on the field together. Because Ohio State’s offense is so versatile, the tight ends can be featured at nearly every spot on the field – on the line, in the backfield, split wide or at H-back. It gives Miller another puppet to play with in an already over flowing toy box.
“When 86 and 81 are out there, I feel really comfortable.” -tim Hinton.
“This offense really gives the tight end the opportunity to do a lot of things,” Heuerman said. “We’re lined up all over the place. It’s fun. It give us a lot of opportunities to do things traditional offenses don’t let you do.”
Jake Stoneburner caught 21 passes in 2010, the most for a tight end during Tressel’s tenure. Many thought the arrival of Meyer would signal a sea change in how the Buckeyes incorporated tight ends into the offensive game plan.
But weeks before the start of the season, Stoneburner was moved to wide receiver and Heuerman and Vannett’s production level never materialized, much like anyone not named Braxton Miller or Carlos Hyde. The tight end duo finished with 17 catches for 217 yards and a touchdown.
“This is my second year in the program, so I understand it a lot more,” Heuerman admitted. “Understanding the program and how everything works with the culture and everything has really helped out. On the field, second year in the offense, knowing what to do rather than just lining up like it was last year, I think it’s really helped me succeed.”
Ohio State has no shortage of playmakers for the 2013 season. There are a plethora of running and catching options, which will force defenses to pick and choose the areas they want to concentrate on and likely leave holes elsewhere. Not to mention, the Buckeyes are revving up the engines this season with a much faster paced offense.
When defenses are at their most fatigued and vulnerable, Ohio State will have six players on the field that can orchestrate big plays – the variety that produces at least 20 yards. Have a spy on Miller, attempt to corral Dontre Wilson, load up to stop Hyde and the other running backs; it could all lead to Heuerman and Vannett streaking down the middle of the field with a nary a defender in the same area code.
“It allows you to have a little freedom in the run game and the pass game,” Herman said. “The good thing about us being no-huddle is we don’t have to take those guys off the field. We don’t have a blocking tight end and a pass-catching tight end. We have two tight ends who can line up and do both things.”
A jumbo package with Heuerman and Vannett lined up on either side of the line would typically signal a run play. For Ohio State, though, it could be nothing more than a ploy to suck in the defense.
“You can go out there with three backs, you can go out there with a lot of different looks. The bottom line is the defenses have to try to defend it all,” Hinton said. “If you can keep defenses guessing, you have a pretty good chance offensively.”
Don’t expect one of the Buckeyes’ tight ends to get jealous of the other. Contributing in any fashion is the objective. They win and lose as a team, and score touchdowns as a team. The glory and condemnation is shared.
“The more weapons you have, the better you’ll be,” Heuerman said. “If that means I get less catches or less opportunities and we win and get to where we want to get, then I’m perfectly fine with that.”
After all, just being an option is a reversal from the time each tight end committed.
“It seems like the last few years, [the popularity of tight ends] has really skyrocketed,” Heuerman said.
Who knows, maybe now there are boys playing football in their front yards dreaming of being an Ohio State tight end.