From 2014-21, no Ohio State tight end had more than two total 30-yard receptions.
In the first three games of the 2022 season, Cade Stover already has three.
Stover, who caught only five passes for 76 yards in 2021 but already has eight catches for 137 yards this year, made his first big play in the passing game in Ohio State’s second game of the season against Arkansas State. After the Red Wolves left him open on a wheel route, Stover made a leaping catch about 20 yards downfield, then proceeded to drag multiple defenders for additional yardage to finish with a 35-yard gain.
Against Toledo on Saturday, Stover made two more big plays as a pass-catcher on Ohio State’s first two possessions of the game. On the opening drive, Stover turned a wheel route into a big play again, running a delayed route off of play action and making another leaping downfield grab while maintaining his speed to run for a 38-yard gain. On the Buckeyes’ next possession, Stover beat two defenders over the middle of the field on a deep post for a 34-yard catch.
Stover also made a contested catch on the sideline for an 11-yard gain later in the first quarter, and would have caught his first career touchdown pass had C.J. Stroud – in one of his only mistakes of the night – not overthrown a wide-open Stover from three yards out.
“I’m shooting myself in the foot, I missed him in the back, that killed me,” Stroud said after the game."
Even without that touchdown, Stover looks like he could be well on his way to having the most productive season by an Ohio State tight end in quite some time.
With 137 receiving yards in three games, Stover is already nearly halfway to the 309 receiving yards Jeremy Ruckert had last season, the highest total for an Ohio State tight end since Jeff Heuerman had 466 receiving yards in 2013.
|2022||CADE STOVER||8 catches, 137 yards, 0 TD (through three games)|
|2021||JEREMY RUCKERT||26 catches, 309 yards, 3 TD|
|2020||JEREMY RUCKERT||13 catches, 151 yards, 5 TD|
|2019||JEREMY RUCKERT||14 catches, 142 yards, 2 TD|
|2018||LUKE FARRELL||20 catches, 205 yards, 1 TD|
|2017||MARCUS BAUGH||29 catches, 309 yards, 5 TD|
|2016||MARCUS BAUGH||24 catches, 269 yards, 2 TD|
|2015||NICK VANNETT||19 catches, 162 yards, 0 TD|
|2014||NICK VANNETT||19 catches, 220 yards, 5 TD|
|2013||JEFF HEUERMAN||26 catches, 466 yards, 4 TD|
The big-play ability Stover has shown has been particularly striking, as his three catches of 30-plus yards currently rank second among all FBS tight ends behind only Louisiana Tech’s Griffin Hebert, who has four.
Yet while Stover’s early-season production is notable in comparison to Ohio State’s tight end usage over the past eight years, it doesn’t come as a surprise to his coaches or teammates. When asked this week if he expected Stover to be productive as a pass-catcher this season, Ryan Day said he did.
“That's kind of what we want out of the tight end position. And when he's had his opportunities, he’s made plays so far,” Day said Tuesday. “So far, so good there, and he's got to keep building on it. Because he can be a weapon for us.”
Stover, who’s changed positions multiple times in his Ohio State career and actually began this offseason expecting to play defense, made a concerted effort to improve as a pass-catcher after he settled on playing tight end this season. During the summer, Stover said he worked out three or four nights a week with Ohio State senior advisor Keenan Bailey with a focus on improving his route-running and footwork.
In the first three weeks of the season, Stover has seen that work pay off.
“It's helped me a lot just to be able to understand what you're looking at and where you're attacking, what leverage you're attacking,” Stover said. “I mean, just little tips and tricks that you can take that he's taught me that can get me open, really.”
Stover said he always knew he was capable of making plays at tight end, but never felt truly comfortable at the position until this year’s preseason camp, which allowed him to take his game to new heights.
“Even when I first came over (to tight end) and I sucked – and I do mean sucked – I knew in my heart, I knew ‘You're talented enough to do it, you just got to figure out how to do it.’ And I mean, it took a while, but I mean, I'm starting to stack them together,” Stover said.
Ohio State offensive coordinator and tight ends coach Kevin Wilson has seen substantial growth from Stover as a receiving threat, giving Wilson and Day more confidence to draw up plays to get the ball in his hands.
“I think he's a much better athlete than people give him credit for,” Wilson said after the win over Toledo. “I think he's a great athlete, great ball skills. I think he's the quintessential tight end, because he's got size, he's got toughness. He's not flashy, he's a little bit dirty, but he's got some ball skills. And I mean, our team loves him. I love him. I think he's a special player. I'm happy. Long way to go. We’re just starting. Long way to go with him. I'm counting on a big year out of that kid.”
Stover also earned the trust of C.J. Stroud, who put in extra work with Stover this offseason to help him become a better pass-catcher.
“He was already kind of naturally good at running routes. He didn't really know the reason of why he was running these routes and where he had to be at a certain time,” Stroud said of Stover. “He's really good at man, but in the offseason, we really worked on his zone routes, trying to get up in the right time and space at the time. So it kind of started then, and it’s just been building ever since.”
Stroud is so confident in Stover’s playmaking ability that he compared Stover to former NFL tight end Rob Gronkowski, who caught 621 passes for 9,268 yards and 92 touchdowns during his professional career.
“He’s such a big body, he's like a little Gronk,” Stroud said of Stover, who’s listed at 6-foot-4, 255 pounds. “He definitely has that type of game where if we give him the ball, he's gonna make something happen … I know that Cade’s done a good job of just getting yards after the catch and things like that, so I definitely think we'll continue to feed him.”
Cade Stover reacts to C.J. Stroud comparing him to Rob Gronkowski: I love Gronk. Im a huge Jeremy Shockey guy, thats my favorite tight end of all-time. I dont know. Thats a very nice compliment by the fella right there. pic.twitter.com/xGqVjTGNXx— Dan Hope (@Dan_Hope) September 21, 2022
While Ohio State cited the talent it had at wide receiver as a reason why Ruckert didn’t see more targets in the passing game last year, the talent it still has at wideout this year is playing a factor in Stover’s early success. Day said the Buckeyes “know with the strength of our receivers that we're gonna get him in a lot of one-on-one situations,” so they want to utilize him accordingly.
Ohio State wide receiver Emeka Egbuka said he expects Stover to continue making plays as a pass-catcher all year long.
“When Cade gets the ball in his hands, he’s a bulldozer, man. It’s hard to take him down. One person definitely can’t take him down,” Egbuka said Saturday. “So early in the game, we were able to see what Cade can do, and he's able to do that every week.”
Given that he is still relatively new to playing tight end after he was initially recruited to Ohio State as a linebacker, Stover believes he’s just beginning to tap into his potential as a playmaker.
“I think we're just scratching the well here, to be honest with you,” Stover said. “Each week I’m just trying to build on stuff and just put my head down and keep rolling.”
At the same time, Stover becoming a player who defenses have to account for in pass coverage should help open up more plays for Egbuka and the rest of Ohio State’s wide receivers. So it’s no guarantee Stover will continue to be targeted as much as he has been so far, especially now that Jaxon Smith-Njigba and Julian Fleming are back in the receiver rotation after missing time with injuries.
That said, Stover says he isn’t worried about how often he gets the ball. He just wants to do whatever he can to help the Buckeyes win – which at least so far this season has meant playing a bigger role in the passing game than many Ohio State tight ends before him.
“I'm just trying to do whatever comes to me and make a play when the ball comes my way and I guess if you run routes that you’re going to get open with, then you got a chance to get the ball,” Stover said. “But I mean, we got so many great players around us. It’s a blessing to catch the ball whenever you can.”