Film Study: Not Your Average Tight Ends

By Kyle Jones on July 17, 2014 at 3:00p
Big things are expected of Jeff Heuerman in his final campaign at Ohio State.


while many members of the Ohio State football team become household names each fall in the Buckeye state, the gentlemen listed at 'Tight End' have rarely gained such notoriety. Looking back at the past two decades in Columbus, OSU Tight Ends have often been more remembered for what they did before they arrived, after they left, off the field transgressions, or even what they did on the basketball court. 

During both the John Cooper and Jim Tressel eras, Tight Ends were essentially just glorified offensive linemen, rarely acting as featured players in the OSU gameplan. While 18 Buckeye Wide Receivers have heard their names called in the NFL Draft since 1990, seven of whom were in the first round, only three Ohio State Tight Ends have been drafted in the same span.

But like many things since Urban Meyer took over, the Tight End position has changed.

When Meyer began installing his offense in the Spring of 2012, one of the first personnel adjustments he made was to combine the Fullbacks and Tight Ends into one position group. While Fullbacks rarely carried the ball, they were still considered Running Backs by the previous coaching staff.

The two groups weren't combined simply for administrative purposes though. Meyer's Tight Ends are a hybrid of both a traditional Tight End and Fullback, with a pinch of Wide Receiver thrown in. 

While the Buckeye offense saw great success running the ball in 2012, the 2013 squad emerged as one of the best in school history, and Tight Ends Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett were major contributors to that success.

With the rise of spread formations, Tight Ends that only line up on the end of the line, next to a Tackle, are becoming a rare breed. At the professional level, Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham have re-defined the position (in Graham's case, to his own financial detriment). Like their NFL counterparts, Heuerman and Vannett line up on the line up all over the field: in a three point stance, in the backfield, or split out as a wide receiver.

As both players stand 6'6" and over 250 lbs, they are more than capable blockers on the end of the line, capable of handling defensive ends and linebackers on their own in the running game. But blocking a defender lined up only a foot or two away on the line is a completely different task than moving across the formation and blocking a moving player as he tries to make a play on a ball-carrier.

But both Heuerman and Vannett have proved more than capable, as we saw on this touchdown run from Kenny Guiton against Purdue. 


Though lined up behind the Right Tackle, Vannett is responsible for kicking out the end man on the opposite side of the line. Not only is Vannett athletic enough to get all the way across the formation, he is able to locate the unblocked defender and act as Guiton's lead blocker into the end zone.

OSU TE Kick-Out

Once he arrives, Vannett makes a perfect block on the opposing linebacker. Though Vannett is taller than his opponent, he gets low enough to maintain leverage and drive him backwards.

But where the position has truly evolved is in the passing game. Though he ranked third on the team in both categories, Heuerman's 26 catches were the most by an Ohio State Tight End since Ben Hartsock's 33 in 2003, and his 466 receiving yards were the most since Rickey Dudley had 575 yards in 1995.

While we've spoken at great lengths about the need for the Buckeye passing game to develop in 2014, the Tight Ends gave us some clues for what to look for this fall.

Heuerman Snag

Heuerman's first of four touchdown catches last fall came on this red zone attempt against Florida A&M. The Buckeyes called a simple "Snag" route from a bunch formation, sending Chris Fields on a deep corner route, Devin Smith running a modified slant where he looks to sit in a zone, and Heuerman (circled) running underneath to the flat. The play looks to create a triangle around two defenders in zone coverage that will inevitably leave one of the three receivers open.

Heuerman Snag TD

The key to the play was Heuerman chipping the defender at the line though. By appearing to block him (something Heuerman had done nearly every play up to that point), the FAMU defender didn't consider Heuerman a receiving threat, and didn't drop back into coverage.

The result is wide open field for Heuerman to make the catch and turn upfield toward the end zone.

Heuerman TD 3

Many teams, especially in the NFL, target their Tight Ends more in the Red Zone. But the 2013 Buckeyes rarely did so. Heuerman and Vannett only had four catches within their opponents' 20 yard line, though two of them resulted in touchdowns.

Though much of this was due to an overall reliance on the running game (the Buckeyes called nearly twice as many runs as passes in the Red Zone, 93 to 53), they still completed 38 passes in that part of the field. Receiver Philly Brown had five red zone touchdown catches, but with his departure it stands to reason that Heuerman and Vannett will become more likely targets close to the goal line.

The Buckeyes won't just miss Brown's production inside the Red Zone though, as they return only two true wide receiver that have seen meaningful playing time in Devin Smith and Evan Spencer. Both Tight Ends have lined up wide, not only catching passes downfield, but acting as blockers on quick screen passes that are packaged as an option with an inside running play.

But they've also been the designated receiver on such screen passes.

TE Packaged Screen

Instead of Spencer catching the ball and looking upfield, the roles here are reversed thanks to the aggression of the defender lined up across from Vannett.

TE Packaged Screen 2

Both defenders were focused on Kenny Guiton, making the handoff to Hyde the correct call, but Vannett is wide open. As defenses begin to cheat against the inside zone, as we saw from Michigan State, a quick screen to the Tight End could be an effective counter.

But as we look to 2014, the Buckeyes still need to find ways to throw the ball downfield effectively. Luckily, it appeared in the Orange Bowl that Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman have already started to look at the Tight Ends to help out.

86 TD 1

The Buckeyes brought Dontre Wilson in motion from the left slot, lining him up as a second running back. The call was a play-action pass however, and not a sweep to Wilson behind the blocks of Heurman (circled), and Carlos Hyde.

86 TD 1

Heuerman appears to be looking for a block, potentially on #42, as the entire Clemson defense is focused on Wilson.

86 TD 3

With all the action heading towards Wilson, Clemson's safety isn't paying attention to Heuerman, who now has no one covering him at all. Heuerman's speed allows him get downfield in a hurry after the catch and punish the Tigers defense for their mistake.

86 TD 4

Since Meyer's offensive philosophy hinges on lining up receivers across the field to spread out the defense, the Buckeyes always have three or four players split out on every play. But with the speed and versatility shown by both Tight Ends, I think we'll see them both on the field at the same time a great deal in 2014.

Though Heuerman or Vannett will probably never be as famous as Braxton Miller, who knows, maybe we'll see some 86 or 81 jerseys show up around campus this fall. 


Comments Show All Comments

German Buckeye's picture

Great TD on Clemson, but Brax still needs to hit the TE/WR in stride; he had to turn around and lose momentum on the catch.  Good thing he has some wheels for his size (and that he was so wide open).

+6 HS
Jugdish's picture

Exactly GB. Braxton needs to be consistent this year to reach fan expectations this year. One over thrown pass to Posey two years ago could have changed the outcome of The Game. If Braxton is relying more on his arm this year than his legs, it will pay great dividends. He will definitely get drafted as a QB. I certainly believe that Braxton has to be drooling about all the weapons that he has at his disposal. I would like to see as many as possible get touches.

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whiskeyjuice's picture

BM did send out a tweet earlier in the year basically stating how much he is going to enjoy all the new weapons this year.

"Championships are not won on Saturdays in November. Championships are won on Tuesdays in August." -- Kerry Combs

+1 HS
Furious George 27's picture

I would like to think that had Braxton had Tom Herman coaching him instead of Nick Siciliano his freshman year would have been completely different.

Yeah, well…that’s just like, your opinion, man.

+2 HS
James Mee's picture

I think it was intentional. In a situation where he is so wide open you want to put it in a safer spot. Now ideally it would be further ahead but I don't think it was a terrible throw. 

+1 HS

I hear what you are saying, but wasn't his shoulder hurt for most of the game, which is why he couldn't get more air under this throws?

"I don't apologize for anything.  When I make a mistake, I take the blame and go on from there." - Woody Hayes

+1 HS
SLVRBLLTS's picture

I respectfully disagree. QB's are taught if a receiver is that wide open, throw it right at him. Don't give yourself a chance of over-leading him and blowing the play.

"Because we couldn't go for three"

TMac511's picture

It seemed to me that Vannett's production dropped off last year from the previous year, and it seems like Brax only looks to them on the deep routes (except for the snag route in the redzone). I would like to see these two catch a quick out or something to that effect and get in space against a linebacker. Both are freakishly athletic and could do some damage if they break a tackle and get into the secondary.

+2 HS
buckeyeradar's picture

Nice article Kyle.  Do you see the bucks lineing up quicker for more plays this year and will that effect the tight end play?  A couple of throws to the tight ends over the middle and the running backs could have a field day.

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Fly Patterns's picture

"But the 2013 Buckeyes rarely (targeted tight ends in the red zone)."

Your study is more than I will ever know about tight ends and it seems clear that the position was critical to the offense. But not giving the tight ends some live in the red zone means very few touchdown opportunities. For 17 year old recruits, that may be very important. Does that explain the struggles in TE recruiting at least partly?

+2 HS
CTBuckeye's picture

Great review - one thing I have noticed over the last few years is that because of that Tressel and Cooper tendency our TEs appear completely uncovered at times.  I don't doubt Meyer will continue to use these guys to his advantage next year, especially with Wilson running the slot and Braxton keeping the LBs honest.

"Because we couldn't go for three"

+1 HS
PasadenaBuckeye626's picture

Tight ends are under-utilized in college football today.  The ability to have a tight end catch the ball in the middle of the field is so valuable. Linebackers will sneak up to protect against the run, and tight ends are almost always open in those situations.  In today's college football landscape, there seems to be so much attention to wide receivers and the space outside of the hashes.  I try to do my part and give the tight ends some love.

Go Bucks!

+3 HS
D-Day0043's picture

Right you are. I don't know how many times I screamed at the television the seam route to the TE is open all day long. Quarterbacks only seem to want to pick at the edges.

I am D-Day0043 and I approve this message.

+1 HS
TraSmith4's picture

If we want to start getting elite TE's to commit a huge year from Heuerman would probably do the trick but he can only be as good as Braxtpn allows him to be. He was open down the middle a LOT last year.

+1 HS
Groveport Heisman's picture

The TE's are  going to shine this year no doubt about it Kyle. We lose our most reliable receiver, and 4 of 5 starting OL ,on top of the beast of a human Carlos "El Guapo" Hyde. Sure we will see plenty of 2 TE sets to help with blocking in both facets of the game,and on top of that we have to use them as weapons to keep teams honest. Plus Meyer has stated multiple times this is the most talented TE unit he has coached ,so he seems on board. I love me some TE's wither it be on a nice crack back block or on a seem route.

Mark my words..I don't need acceptance. I'm catching interceptions on you innocent pedestrians.

johnny11's picture

With Noah Brown now listed at 6-1 244 on the official roster. I wonder if he will be involved with the tight ends and Hbacks at all? 

+1 HS
Crimson's picture

That's gotta be a typo, right?  244 . . . wow.

whiskeyjuice's picture

I like the offensive schemes that Urban and Herman have put together. Looking forward to this season!

"Championships are not won on Saturdays in November. Championships are won on Tuesdays in August." -- Kerry Combs

D-Day0043's picture

In the spring game Vannett ran the most beautiful zig-out, or outside-pivot route, I have ever seen. That was a impressive crisp route for a big tight end to run. Too bad the ball was off of the mark, he was wide open. That kid has got skills.

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Thanks Kyle - I would love to utilize TEs more in the passing game.  Part of me wonders if it was mostly the play call, or if it was Braxton's comfort and decision-making throughout last season, as the TEs are every bit as much a wonderful weapon to give LBs and safeties head aches and to keep them guessing as we do with the pass/run options on every play.  BUT if you don't use them much, then there's no reason for a defense to feel threatened by them and makes it easier to cover (though my theory is debunked in that clip of Jeff being wide open against Clemson and scoring) - but I would argue that was more of a surprise plan than a 'i'm going to make you choose which poison you're going to swallow, and you WILL swallow' pill.

"I don't apologize for anything.  When I make a mistake, I take the blame and go on from there." - Woody Hayes

GVerrilli92's picture

We were 38 of 53 passing in the redzone?

Um, what?

Can someone on the staff come up with a passing chart? Are we passing at all beyond the LOS? Or are we just taking advantage of the defense's disposition to stop the run? I thought I had a pretty good feel for the tendencies of last year's team and that stat just flat out blew my mind.

I got a gray kitty, white kitty, tabby too, and a little orange guy who puts snakes in my shoes. Got mad MC skills, that leave ya struck, and I roll with my kitties and I'm hard as f*ck.

Shangheyed's picture

Kyle always nice to go over film with you!  Thanks for that, hope to see TE used even more this year.

JJB's picture

I remember an option pitch to a tight end, I think for a touchdown, maybe two years ago? Anybody know who/what game this was? I have a design review this morning otherwise I would spend it searching for this.

apack614's picture

We never used the tight end more because of Ryan Hamby its his fault and his fault alone haha!

I can't wait to poop in the PL bathroom.

+1 HS
GVerrilli92's picture

Damn you Vince Young! DAMN YOU!!

Screw Tebow. VY and Phillip Rivers were twice the college QBs he was.

I know Phillip Rivers is random, but that 2OT NC State game was my first ever buckeye game - sealed my fate forever.

I got a gray kitty, white kitty, tabby too, and a little orange guy who puts snakes in my shoes. Got mad MC skills, that leave ya struck, and I roll with my kitties and I'm hard as f*ck.

+1 HS
TheShookster's picture

Just would like to say I'm a huge fan of #86. That will be all.

He ain't even stretch doe!!

BuckminsterFullback's picture

Nice write-up, as always.

I think Jake Ballard would have done very nicely in this system. Unfortunately, while he was here, most of his routes went over the middle, where it seems Pryor was reluctant to throw the ball.

GVerrilli92's picture

I would like to have seen a trimmed down Ben Hartsock in this offense. That guy was a beast and he's still an NFLer. Maybe more of a blocker than UfM prefers, but he had the body of an OT that could also catch and seal the edge on pull blocks.

I got a gray kitty, white kitty, tabby too, and a little orange guy who puts snakes in my shoes. Got mad MC skills, that leave ya struck, and I roll with my kitties and I'm hard as f*ck.

BroJim's picture

Good read, thanks! I hope Miller can use his TEs more in the coming season.

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Soulbowler's picture

Why in the world wouldn't Miller try to target his two biggest targets more?  A passer as bad as he is needs all the help he can get. That pass up the seam where the TE stops to catch the ball and then run was an all too familiar scenario last year. I truly hope miller have learned more about being a better passer this year or it will be more of the same. Good defenses will eat him up. And Sundays will not be an option. Unlike the TEs  on the squad. I'd say even at this point all three end up playing Sundays. 

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