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