When Cade Stover was asked earlier this month who he thought would step up at tight end this season now that he is playing linebacker and Jeremy Ruckert is pursuing an NFL career, Stover didn’t hesitate with his response.
“Joe Royer, I think, is a great player,” Stover said in an interview with Eleven Warriors. “I think he can be really special one day. He’s just gotta keep his head down here and keep rolling. I think he’s gonna be a really special kid.”
That response was similar to what Ohio State offensive coordinator and tight ends coach Kevin Wilson said about Royer when he was asked before the Rose Bowl about the future of his position group. While the Buckeyes hadn’t yet made a final decision at that time on whether Stover would play offense or defense in 2022, Wilson said Royer’s development was what made them feel comfortable moving Stover to linebacker for the Rose Bowl.
“Joe Royer has really come on very, very well,” Wilson said. “I think Joe is setting himself up well to be a quality, quality player. His skill set, he's getting more mature, more consistent.”
Going into his third season at Ohio State, Royer remains almost completely unproven. Even though Stover played only on defense in the Rose Bowl, Royer didn’t end up playing any tight end snaps against Utah. For the 2021 season as a whole, Royer played only 34 total offensive snaps, and all of those came in the late stages of blowout wins. He didn’t play at all during his redshirt year in 2020.
That was at least partially because of who was on the depth chart in front of him. In 2020, Ohio State had three veteran tight ends it trusted in Ruckert, Luke Farrell and Jake Hausmann. Last year, Stover and Mitch Rossi played the vast majority of the backup snaps behind Ruckert.
Entering this spring, however, Ohio State needs some new tight ends to emerge. The Buckeyes have far less returning experience at tight end than they do at any other position. And Royer seems to be the tight end they’re counting on most to have a breakout season.
“Joe Royer has really come on very, very well.”– Ohio State offensive coordinator/tight ends coach Kevin Wilson
Rossi is back for a super senior season with the Buckeyes, but whether he can be a true No. 1 tight end for Ohio State is uncertain. A 6-foot-1, 245-pound former walk-on, Rossi will likely continue to play many of his snaps at fullback – particularly in two-tight end sets – so the Buckeyes need at least one other tight end they can rely on.
Aside from Royer, another and perhaps more obvious candidate to break through is fellow third-year tight end Gee Scott Jr., who was a more highly touted recruit than Royer; Scott was ranked as the No. 66 overall prospect in the class of 2020, while Royer was just the 413th-ranked overall prospect in the class.
That said, Scott was initially recruited to Ohio State as a wide receiver and is listed at just 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, compared to 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds for Royer. While Scott offers higher upside as a pass-catcher, how much he plays this fall could depend on how much improvement he shows this offseason as an in-line blocker.
“He's not a true tight end just size-wise yet. He's gotten his weight into the mid-220s,” Wilson said of Scott in December. “He doesn't lack courage or the ability to want to block or the toughness. He actually is very, very strong. If you go to the weight room, he's strong. He does need the old ‘little more lead in the pencil,’ just when I'm blocking guys, have the mass to anchor down and firm up some things. But that being said too, he's a guy that flexes out as a receiving tight end better than those guys (the other tight ends).
“To be a complete tight end, though, we've got to continue to get a little bit more weight and continue to enhance that.”
Rossi will certainly have a role in Ohio State’s offense after returning for his additional year of eligibility, and Scott will likely at least see situational playing time, but Royer is a more conventional tight end than either of them, which could make him the Buckeyes’ most important player at the position.
Redshirt freshman Sam Hart and true freshman Bennett Christian are also traditional in-line tight ends; Hart should be more ready to contribute now that he’s had a year to develop with the Buckeyes, and Christian already has enough size and blocking ability that he could push for immediate playing time this spring. Considering neither of them has even played a snap yet for the Buckeyes, though, Ohio State would probably prefer not to have to lean on them to play major roles this season.
So unless the Buckeyes bring in a transfer tight end, which currently seems unlikely since they’re still six scholarships over the 85-man limit, the opportunity to earn a major role in Ohio State’s offense should be right in front of Royer this spring – and whether he can make good on what Wilson and Stover are saying about him could determine whether Ohio State gets what it needs at the tight end position this year.