Jelani Thurman Making Strong Impression in First Spring at Ohio State As Early Enrollee

By Dan Hope on April 7, 2023 at 8:35 am
Jelani Thurman

Physically, Jelani Thurman has stood out to everyone who’s watched Ohio State practice this spring.

At 6-foot-6 and 253 pounds, Thurman isn’t built like someone who should still be a senior in high school. The early enrollee already looks the part of a college-ready tight end, not only with his physique but also with his performance in the portions of practice media members have been able to watch.

In Ohio State’s first spring scrimmage, Thurman made a key catch-and-run for a first down to keep alive a game-winning drive for the offense. He was one of the standouts of the Buckeyes’ second scrimmage, catching several passes throughout the Student Appreciation Day practice, including a touchdown grab during a red-zone drill.

As good as Thurman has looked on the field, though, Ohio State tight ends coach Keenan Bailey says he’s been even more impressed with how Thurman has approached his first spring off the field. Bailey said Thurman, along with fellow true freshman Carnell Tate, has been one of the hardest workers on the team since he arrived at Ohio State in January.

“Jelani and Carnell Tate are two of the first guys in here every day. Every day,” Bailey said. “I go into my office at the end of the night and Jelani’s in there with our GA Sean Binckes, who's one heck of a coach, and they're going over tomorrow’s script or they're watching film, learning new things. So yes, he's a big, physical, athletic dude. And he loves football. But the best thing Jelani’s been doing is off-the-field habits.”

True freshman tight ends typically don’t play much at Ohio State. Over the past 10 years, only one true freshman has played more than 100 snaps at tight end in a season: Jeremy Ruckert, who played just 129 snaps and caught just one pass for 13 yards as a first-year Buckeye in 2018.

Ohio State expects its tight ends to be able to both catch the ball like wide receivers and block like offensive linemen, which means many tight ends need multiple years of development before they are ready to play a significant role in the Buckeyes’ offense.

“First off, the thing is learning the playbook,” Bailey said when asked about the challenges a freshman tight end faces. “We have a pro-style offense. So I gotta learn the run game that maybe a receiver doesn't maybe have to do as much. I gotta learn the pass game that offensive line doesn't have to do as much. So we kind of have to learn it like a quarterback. We got the run game, the pass game and the pass protection game. So learning it's one thing, and then executing it with the techniques and against some pretty big dudes and physical dudes is the second piece.”

While Thurman made lots of big plays as a receiver in high school, catching 70 passes for 1,103 yards and 20 touchdowns in his final two seasons at Langston Hughes (Fairburn, Georgia), becoming a more refined blocker is a big point of emphasis now that he’s at Ohio State.

“If I'm Coach Boone down at Langston Hughes, I would have put Jelani out there and just throw fade balls to him. I would never ask him to block these D-ends because you got a mismatch, but up here you gotta do it all, and that's the biggest adjustment,” Bailey said.

That said, Thurman has the talent to potentially break precedent for Ohio State tight ends and earn an immediate role as a freshman. He’s the highest-rated tight end recruit the Buckeyes have signed since Ruckert, and his work ethic is enabling him to put that talent to good use quickly.

“God gave him talent, we challenge our guys to get skill and discipline. And he's doing things now on film that because he followed the lead of Cade (Stover) and Gee (Scott Jr.) and Joe (Royer) and those guys, he's doing things now habitually, finishing plus-two, going two extra seconds on blocks that you don't really see early enrollees do,” Bailey said. “So that's what I'm most impressed with.”

“Jelani and Carnell Tate are two of the first guys in here every day. Every day.”– Keenan Bailey on Jelani Thurman and Carnell Tate

Ryan Day said last week Ohio State needs to have “three tight ends in the room that we feel confident putting in the game,” leaving the door open for Thurman to earn a role in the offense if he can find his way onto the three-deep.

Stover is in line to play the most snaps at tight end as Ohio State’s returning starter, while Scott and Royer are also strong candidates to be in the rotation in their fourth year as Buckeyes. But Bailey isn’t ruling anything out for Thurman if he keeps working the way he has so far.

“They all have a chance (to earn playing time),” Bailey said. “I don't want to put expectations. Once you start putting expectations, you're gonna hurt yourself. If he keeps attacking every day like he has and off the field with Coach Binckes, then he's got a shot.”

While it’s still to be determined whether his strong start this spring will lead to playing time in the fall, Thurman’s performance in his first three months as a Buckeye has certainly only increased the already-high expectations Day and Ohio State had for what he will accomplish in his career.

“All the tools are there. His mentality, competitiveness, we've seen the last eight weeks,” Day said after the first day of practice. “So this is a guy who just needs a ton of reps, and the more reps he gets the better he's going to be. But all the tools are there.”

Scott, who Bailey says has “taken Jelani under his wing” and shown Thurman how things are done in his first spring at Ohio State, is also among those who believe Thurman’s future as a Buckeye is bright.

“I think his ceiling’s really high,” Scott said. “He's almost so big and long that his coordination is almost catching up. And I think once he does get there and he becomes fundamentally sound and takes some years of coaching, his ceiling is really high of the player that he can be. And so initially, that's one of the biggest things that jumped out is his physical ability, and I think the sky's the limit for him if he just keeps taking coaching and just keeps putting a day in front of the other.”

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