COLUMBUS — At a school where fans in the first 10 rows often average about as many catches as the tight end, maybe it is not surprising Ohio State does not have a clear-cut starter at the position.
But this year, coaches say that’s a good thing.
Junior Jeff Heuerman and sophomore Nick Vannett are suddenly being billed as secret weapons of an amped-up offense.
Tight ends coach Tim Hinton labels the long and athletic pair “1 and 1A.”
Offensive coordinator Tom Herman said, “I challenge anybody in the country to have two better tight ends than we have.”
And Urban Meyer touts them as the best tandem of tight ends he has coached.
So what the heck to do with this seeming out-of-nowhere surplus?
The answer may be simple: Play them both.
Following a trend that has proliferated in the NFL, expect the Buckeyes to employ a healthy dose of two tight end sets this fall — and not just as people eaters/blockers in jumbo packages.
Coaches like the versatility of Heuerman and Vannett, who are both 6 feet, 6 inches and about 250 pounds. Hinton praised not only their blocking but their value as oversized targets in the passing game, equipped with the speed to get past the linebackers and the size to overpower defensive backs. Far from lumbering, Heuerman is a former junior hockey standout while Vannett was a high school basketball star suburban Columbus.
“This offense really gives the tight end the opportunity to do a lot of things,” said Heuerman, a Naples, Fla., native. “We’re in the backfield motioning around, we’re split out wide, lined up on the line at tight end, lined up at H-back. We’re lined up all over the place. It’s fun. It give us a lot of opportunities to do things traditional offenses, and other offenses don’t let you do.”
Stop if you’re a little skeptical.
Ohio State is far from Tight End U. Jake Stoneburner’s 21 catches in 2010 stands as the most productive season for an OSU tight end during the past decade. And last year, preseason buzz that Meyer’s arrival would transform the tight end from a glorified tackle to a do-it-all threat gave way to uneven results.
Stoneburner moved to receiver and had 16 catches for 269 yards, while Heuerman and Vannett combined 17 catches, 217 yards, and a touchdown.
But Meyer and Herman have a history of favoring the tight end. The now-disgraced Aaron Hernandez caught a team-high 68 passes for Meyer’s 2009 Florida team and later teamed with Rob Gronkowski to popularize the two tight end package with the New England Patriots — while Rice’s James Casey had 111 catches for 1,329 yards and 13 touchdowns when Herman was calling the Owls plays in 2008.
Though no one expects Heuerman or Vannett to approach those numbers, they should expand the Buckeyes’ offensive options.
In theory, their flexibility will keep defenses guessing even when the backfield is stuffed — run or pass? — and allow OSU to operate its no-huddle spread without interruption. Herman wants the Buckeyes, who went from averaging 62 plays per game in 2011 to 70 in Meyer’s first season, to significantly ramp up the speed.
“The good thing about us being no-huddle, we don’t have to take those guys off the field,” Herman said. “We don’t have a blocking tight end and a pass-catching tight end. We’ve got two tight ends that can line up and do both things. It allows us to play faster, with the entire offense available for one personnel group.
“The whole premise of being no-huddle is to keep the defense on the field and running around and getting tired. If you’re subbing guys out that have specialty roles, then the defense is allowed to sub, too.”
So, all hail the tight end? Are the Buckeyes ready to embrace a new era?
Heuerman hopes so.
“[Vannett] and I complement each other really well,” Heuerman said, “and together I think it will be a fun year to watch.”