Opportunities flourish with the arrival of spring practice. Veterans seize openings, freshmen become acclimated with college football and coaches evaluate every minute detail. For Nick Vannett, spring 2014 presents an appearance in the spotlight.
Injuries are never celebrated, thus was the case when tight end Jeff Heuerman was sidelined after foot surgery. But coaches and players alike didn’t sound the alarm, because Heuerman should return at 100 percent this summer and missing two weeks of spring drills won’t act as a setback for the senior.
It represents a chance for Vannett to further distinguish himself.
“I will take our two tight ends over anybody in America,” head coach Urban Meyer said.
Tight end is a unique position in that it’s a hybrid between wide receiver and offensive lineman. If you can’t catch or block, you need not apply. Vannett is a maestro at both. In two seasons, he’s tallied 17 receptions for 203 yards and a touchdown and his blocking prowess has earned him continual praise from Meyer and tight ends coach Tim Hinton.
Meyer tagged Vannett with the “most improved” tag this spring. Coming off a record-setting season that included yards and points not seen in decades at Ohio State, the Buckeye offense in in a bit of a reboot. The offensive line and running backs are going through total overhauls, bringing tight end to attention.
“We’re still finding our identity right now,” Vannett said. “When you lose guys like Philly Brown and Jordan Hall and Carlos Hyde, it’s hard to replace those guys. But me and Jeff are trying to step up and be that key, that go-to guy. Before he got hurt, I thought we were doing a really good job. We’ve just got to keep pushing it.”
The camaraderie inside the tight ends meeting room is infectious. All hands are on deck. Veterans help young players who strive for a chunk of playing time, while Heuerman and Vannett give each other pointers. The duo came to Ohio State in the same recruiting class forging a lasting bond.
“We push each other to be great and challenge each other in practice,” Vannett said. “It hurts not having him out here, but someone has to step up. I’ve taken the challenge upon myself to go out and get better.”
When the current coaching staff took over, Hinton remembers tight ends that were on the 100 level of course instruction. That’s steadily progressed all the way up to 400 with Vannett understanding the smallest details relating to passing routes, defenses and blitz packages.
He’s established himself as a worthy competitor and one deserving of shared playing time. The Central Ohio native, a graduate of Westerville Central, is cognizant of the situation. Vannett enters his junior season firmly entranced in the rotation, but nowhere near satisfied. Content is an unspoken work in the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.
“I’m a junior. I have to step up,” Vannett said. “I’ve been taking things a little more serious this year. I have to mature. You have to watch more film and understand defenses better. I’m trying to help other guys out and do everything I can to make the offense successful.
“Most of it’s just internal for me. I want the best for myself. I’m a competitive person. I want to be the best tight end that goes through Ohio State, and that’s just the pride I have in myself. Every time I come out on the field, I want to get better at one area of my game and just help out the offense.”
The work ethic and alertness has not gone unnoticed. Hinton’s seen a more physical tight end who’s blocking well and interpreting the nuances of Xs and Os.
“He’s having a great spring,” Hinton said. “Each of those reps is an opportunity to get better and improve. As you go through it, you gain confidence and you believe in yourself. Coach Meyer is teasing him all the time that he has veins in his arms now. He’s starting to feel good about himself. He’s just going out and executing. The game is fast and no one is perfect, but he’s had a great spring and has improved his skill level.”
When you sign up to play football for the Buckeyes, improving is a yearly grind. It’s a crucial operation for Vannett during the offseason. The playbook expanded from 2012 to 2013, with an even more robust catalogue on tap for 2014. Life is easier when overseeing a unit that’s consistent and resourceful.
What could be conjured up this fall are two tight end sets. Vannett and Heuerman can both block and catch. Their athleticism fits the mold of a Meyer-type tight end, which he constantly utilizes.
“They just have to play well,” Hinton said. “When you do your job and you execute and you’re productive, we watch that film to the nth degree. Productive people will play. For Nick, his consistency is much better. We will find ways to get the most productive players on the field, whether it’s with two tight ends. We have a lot of weapons on offense. The physicality of what we’re doing is a lot better than it was a year ago.”
It’s an added wrinkle for defensive coordinators to ponder, a twist for an already highly regarded offense.