Better Know a Buckeye: Jelani Thurman Has the Size, Versatility and Upside to Develop into the Next Great Tight End at Ohio State

By Josh Poloha on April 13, 2023 at 10:10 am
Jelani Thurman

Better Know A Buckeye is our look at every member of Ohio State’s 2023 recruiting class and how they became Buckeyes as they prepare to begin their OSU careers this fall.

At 6-foot-6, 253 pounds, there's a reason Jelani Thurman is the third-ranked tight end (No. 104 overall) in the 2023 class. As physically gifted as any tight end in the class, he's the highest-ranked tight end to commit to the Buckeyes since 2018, when Jeremy Ruckert (No. 2 tight end, No. 37 overall) chose Ohio State.

In December, he was ranked as the 33rd-“freakiest” athlete in the 2023 class by 247Sports. He seems to have backed that up so far this spring.

"He's got a lot of potential," Ryan Day said on Wednesday. "To think about a guy at that age to come in with this much talent, I don't know if we've had one (at tight end) since I've been here."

Jelani Thurman

  • Size: 6-6/253
  • Position: TE
  • School: Langston Hughes (Fairburn, Georgia)
  • 247 Composite: ★★★★
  • Composite Rank: #3 TE
  • Overall Rank: #104

How He Became A Buckeye

Following a visit to Columbus for the spring game last year and his final official visit June 24-26, Thurman fell in love with the Buckeyes.

His final decision came down to Ohio State and Michigan State – a top two that seemed like an interesting one for the Georgia native – and the Buckeyes won out in the end. It was quite important given the fact that Ty Lockwood, the first tight end to commit to OSU in the 2023 class, ended up flipping to Alabama. When Lockwood decommitted, Thurman became the lone tight end in the class, and that's the way it stayed.

Although Ohio State wanted two tight ends in the class, Thurman has the potential to make up for it by himself.

High School Years

Whether it was lining up out wide or with his hand on the ground, Thurman made plays time and time again for Langston Hughes High School. As a junior, he had 31 catches for 479 yards and seven touchdowns in 15 games and was an all-region selection. He followed that up with 39 receptions for 624 yards and 13 touchdowns in 15 games his senior season, including an 80-yard touchdown. His quarterback, 2024 Ohio State commit Air Noland, made sure to get the ball to the mismatch nightmare as much as possible.

While Thurman made the most of his opportunities lined up out wide as a pass-catcher, showcasing his jump-ball ability, versatility, and athleticism as a tight end, Thurman also wasn't afraid to line up with his hand in the dirt as a run blocker. He did whatever his team asked of him.

Thurman also played defensive end in high school. The multi-sport athlete played basketball as well.

He got his athleticism from his parents, as both his mother and father are former pro athletes. His father, Odell, is a former All-SEC linebacker at Georgia who went on to be a second-round pick in the 2005 NFL draft by the Cincinnati Bengals. His mother, Kara Braxton, is a former WNBA player.

Immediate Impact

It takes something special for a freshman tight end to play significant, non-garbage time plays as a freshman. Ohio State expects its tight ends to be able to block opposing defensive ends and run routes like a receiver, which is a tough transition for any player coming out of high school.

Even with Thurman already having college-ready size, he is still a raw talent, especially as a blocker. Learning the playbook, both in the run game and the pass game, also takes time. So while Thurman has drawn rave reviews for both his on-field performance and off-field work ethic since he arrived at Ohio State, it’s still unlikely he will play a major role in year one.

His first year as a Buckeye will consist of adding muscle to his already elite size, learning how to be a good run blocker and adding to his repertoire as a receiver, which is already his best skill.

He's already trying his best to maximize his skill set and size early on, as the early enrollee has been one of the first players in the Woody Hayes Athletic Center and one of the last ones to leave each day.

"The best thing he’s done is his off-the-field habits," tight ends coach Keenan Bailey said last week. "I mean, Jelani and Carnell Tate are two of the first guys in here every day. Every day. And 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.

"So every day, he’s gotten better. And that hasn’t been a coincidence. He spends more time in here at night with Sean Binckes than anybody. Yeah, really impressed."

Long-Term Impact

Becoming a dominant tight end at the college level is tough. One must be able to block like an offensive tackle and catch passes like a wide receiver and be able to do so every other play when called upon. While it will take time, much like other tight ends that have come through Ohio State, Thurman has the size, tools, versatility, and athleticism to be the Buckeyes' next great tight end.

"It's hard to tell early on, but he has all the tools," Day said in March. "Tight end is a developmental position. There’s a lot that goes on with tight ends. I mean, you’re talking about, you got protection, you got blocking, you got route-running, I mean, there’s a lot going on on day one for a tight end. But all the tools are there."

Everything seems to be aligning for Thurman to be another major weapon in Ohio State's offense in the future. With Cade Stover entering his final season as a Buckeye, Thurman could have a chance to fight for the starting job as a sophomore.

Even if he isn’t the starter in 2024, he could still see substantial playing time when the Buckeyes utilize multi-tight end sets.

"We need to continue to develop that room," Day said on April 1. "12 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 that we feel confident putting in the game is something that we really gotta do 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 grinding, they’re getting better. And you can feel that, but that’ll be very important to the success of the offense."

Player Comparison: Rickey Dudley

After originally coming to Ohio State as a basketball recruit, Dudley decided to also play football entering his third year in Columbus.

In his junior season, Dudley had just nine receptions for 106 yards and two touchdowns. He turned it up a notch during his senior season in 1995 with 37 receptions for 575 yards (No. 3 among tight ends in program history) and seven touchdowns (tied No. 1).

He combined his multi-sport athleticism with his elite 6-foot-6 frame to dominate on the football field, turning himself into the No. 9 overall pick in the 1996 NFL Draft.

If Thurman can combine his size and potential with his "freakish" athleticism, he has the chance to be the next great tight end at Ohio State and make the Buckeyes' passing attack even more lethal than it already is.

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