One Buckeye dominated the number of reps allocated to the tight end position in 2022.
Even if you include Mitch Rossi, who played more of a hybrid role than that of a traditional tight end, Cade Stover saw the field for over 200 more plays than the rest of Ohio State’s tight ends room combined last season. Given that he opted to return to Columbus for a fifth season, it’s safe to say Stover will be at the top of that list again by the end of 2023.
But a few complicating factors could grant more opportunities for those behind Stover on the depth chart this season. For one, Stover’s injury exit in the first quarter of the Peach Bowl was a stark reminder that depth must be created at the position in case of emergency. Not to mention, both Joe Royer and Gee Scott Jr. are entering their fourth seasons in scarlet and gray and have long been in line for an uptick in playing time. Ryan Day also seems keen on the idea of playing more traditional two-tight-end sets in 2023, even if he won’t point to any correlation with the early struggles of his retooled offensive line this spring.
“I don't know if it has as much to do with the offensive line, but (the development of Royer and Scott) is critical. We need to continue to develop that room,” Day said after Ohio State’s Student Appreciation Day scrimmage on April 1. “Twelve personnel has been very, very important to us, and it has to continue to be moving forward. So finding three tight ends in the room we feel confident putting in the game is something that we really gotta do a great job with. Keenan (Bailey)’s doing a good job of building the power of the unit in that room, and I think those guys are putting in days. They're out here every day and they're griding, they're getting better. You could feel that. But that'll be very important to the success of our offense.”
When Stover went down with a back injury in the College Football Playoff, Rossi was forced to play a career-high load of 47 snaps, as Scott had been ruled out of the contest ahead of time. Royer played 28 snaps against Georgia, but he’d only appeared in one other game on offense all season, which wasn’t exactly ideal in the biggest game of the season. Sam Hart even took a CFP snap at tight end, and he’d only logged playing time in five previous games.
Rossi won’t be back in 2023, which makes Royer and Scott the natural next men up at tight end whether Stover encounters any more health issues or not. And first-year position coach Keenan Bailey said the spring is the perfect chance for both, as well as several other young Buckeye tight ends, to start practicing as if they could find themselves in first-team situations.
“The only way we're gonna figure that out is if I replicate that in practice. There's been times that, again using Cade as an example, Cade's been the absolute best at being uncomfortable,” Bailey said. “So there's been times that I sent him down with the receivers to learn some route-running work. And I said, 'Hey guys, Cade's out the game. Joe, Gee, Bennett (Christian), Sam, Pat (Gurd), you guys got to fill it.' Because Georgia, we didn't anticipate that and we had to throw Mitch in there. And Mitch, I'm always gonna use Mitch Rossi as an example of stepping up and having competitive excellence. So kind of simulating that in the spring has been great. 'Hey, Cade, you're out these two periods.'”
Royer might have seen more opportunities in 2022 had it not been for the death of his mother during the season and the physical injuries he battled along the way. Royer received praise from C.J. Stroud ahead of the season when he called the Cincinnati native one of the most underrated players on the Buckeye offense. By season’s end, though, Royer saw the field for just 35 plays – only more than in 2021.
But this spring and into the fall, Royer’s personal goal is clear: lock down the role of Ohio State’s No. 2 tight end by the start of the new season.
“Obviously I'm super excited Cade's coming back. Hell of a player and really close friend of mine, so it's always good to have him around,” Royer said. “But yeah, hoping and trying to be that second guy to complement him when we go 12. And maybe if he needs a breather or something, I'll go in and be fine if we're in 11 personnel as well.”
Bailey said he’s seen clear improvement in Royer’s game so far this offseason and that the strides he took in the weight room have contributed to his growing success on the field.
“This version of Joe Royer is the best that I've seen. And I think it goes back to eight weeks before spring ball, he's added 12 pounds,” Bailey said. “I mean, he was bragging he was the heaviest tight end in the room. And now Cade has slimmed down and Cade looks great too. But I think those extra 10 pounds of muscle have been helping out Joe. He's doing some things now in the blocking game, in the route-running game that maybe he didn't even do a year ago because he was lighter. So yeah, he's definitely playing well.”
Scott’s 140 snaps last season were the second-most of any returning Buckeye tight end, but given his recruiting status as a high four-star wide receiver prospect in 2020, he still hasn’t quite earned the prolific role many envisioned for him at Ohio State.
Of course, transitioning from receiver to tight end has only slowed that process, as Scott had to pack on muscle and learn how to be an in-line blocker at the highest level of college football. Bailey said Scott’s battle to earn a bigger role has been far more physical than mental to this point.
“I don't think it's a mental block, I think it's actually the opposite. I think his mentality is great, I think it's a physical thing. Again, I'm asking a guy who was with Coach (Brian) Hartline for two years who came in as an X receiver to block JT (Tuimoloau), and next Jack (Sawyer),” Bailey said. “So he's getting those techniques down, his body's changed and again, he's doing that better than he ever has.”
Scott’s had plenty of catching up to do over the last couple years, but he no longer seems to think he’s behind the eight-ball at the position. Now weighing in at 240 pounds, five more than last year, Scott looks physically capable of taking on opposing defenders at the line of scrimmage more than ever before, and likes where his trajectory appears to be headed.
“I think when you put yourself in vulnerable positions, you grow. And so I think that's been one of the biggest things, I've put myself in a position where it wasn't necessarily comfortable for me initially,” Scott said. “But I've grown tremendously, and so I'm happy for that. And the plan is just to keep trending in the right direction and I think everything else is gonna take care of itself.”
With Ohio State’s spring schedule quickly winding to a close, Royer and Scott won’t have many more chances to impress Day and Bailey before the summer. But Saturday’s spring game could be the most important opportunity of any single practice for both to leave a strong impression on the Buckeye coaching staff.
“When I leave spring, I know what value each guy can bring,” Bailey said. “And today we challenged them to be versatile. … For each guy I'm trying to make them uncomfortable so they can grow.”