Jeff Heuerman isn’t a villain. The Ohio State fanbase didn’t feel betrayed. Urban Meyer and Gene Smith didn’t issue a statement castigating the Buckeye tight end. But there was a mistake made last season by Heuerman that gives him an opportunity at redemption in 2014 – possibly like a certain someone in the Cleveland area.
With the Big Ten Championship Game hanging in the balance, national championship hopes on the line, Ohio State ran Braxton Miller to the right on fourth-and-2 against Michigan State. It appeared for a split second that Miller was going to reach the mark with nary a problem.
Then Heuerman missed a block.
When Denicos Allen corralled Miller, bringing him to the Lucas Oil Stadium turf a yard shy of the first down, Ohio State’s ticket to Pasadena was shredded. The Buckeyes didn’t lose solely because Allen bounced off an attempted block from Heuerman. But it happened on the biggest play of the game, so that’s what grabs the spotlight.
For Heuerman, it was agony.
“It’s obviously one of those plays you wish you could have back,” Heuerman said in December. “But it’s part of the game of football. You’ve got to move on from it.”
He said he watched the play on film and envisioned it mentally a million times. Winning is at the forefront of any athlete’s mind. Inevitably, though, they’ll experience heartbreak. Sports aren’t supposed to be easy, making championships that much more satisfying and rewarding.
It also makes the hurt and sting more intense. Athletes at high-profile university invest their formative years to be successful at a game and possibly better their lives in the future. Heuerman didn’t hurt his NFL hopes, but he created a deep wound.
“I beat myself up a little bit,” he said. “Every competitive athlete does. I don’t think anyone can kind of shake off a play like that or a game like that, especially the outcome. But…you can’t dwell on the past.”
Or injuries. Heuerman was sidelined midway through spring drills after suffering a foot injury that required surgery. He only recently returned to working out. It’s not expected to linger – and Braxton Miller is hoping that holds true.
Heuerman, a Mackey Award candidate, finished last season with 26 receptions for 466 yards and four touchdowns. He enters his senior season with an added role in terms of reliance on offense and leadership.
“He will be a captain of our team and a guy who leads our team,” Meyer said.
It’s possible Heuerman and Nick Vannett could be paired in a two-tight end system. There was speculation it would be a frequent sight in 2013, but the plan never came to fruition. Meyer in on record with proclaiming the duo is not only the best group of tight ends he’s coached, but also the top two tight ends in the country.
“We’re trying to prove to the coaches they’ll make a mistake if they don’t put us on the field together,” Vannett said during spring practice. “This is the last year Jeff and I are together, so it’s now or never.”
Vannett’s shown flashes here and there. Heuerman’s had the on-field proof in bunches. Never was it more apparent than at Purdue last year – just days after he blistered the city of West Lafayette – when he totaled five catches for 116 yards with a 40-yard touchdown reception and a hurdled defender.
“We know there’s a great consistency there,” tight ends coach Tim Hinton said.
Redemption won’t come in the form of a block or big play for Heuerman. It’ll consist of doing what’s needed for the Buckeyes. It could be blocking, catching passes or leading. Ohio State is searching for dependable tight ends who are versatile enough to stretch defenses or do dirty work.
A 6-foot-5, 255-pound frame falls in line with being a gazelle that can deliver hits. But it wasn’t always work that way. Meyer and Hinton recalled, with irritation, what the first season in Columbus was like with Heuerman. There was a learning curve with the new offense, but any form of consistency was non-existent.
Just two years later, the strides have been evident and immense. Hinton equated it to taking freshman coursework (101) and senior-level classes (400).
“Now you can really get that minute detail and then have more expectation of reading a defense, seeing the indicators, reading the blitz pattern,” he said. “Now they’re into the big picture. Their route running this spring [was] a lot better than it’s ever been.”
Offense is all about production, and determining the tight ends’ identity is still unsettled. Execution is the primary focus. Even if there are grand plans in regards to Heuerman and Vannett, they still must be completed properly. The loss of Carlos Hyde, Philly Brown and much of the offensive line could result in more looks for the tight ends.
You won’t see Heuerman complain. And if he’s called on to deliver a block, he’ll use his past as motivation.
Said Hinton: “I’m not really concerned.”