Andrew Holleran / Photo editor
In Ohio State’s first year using the spread offense under new football coach Urban Meyer, tight ends Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett were utilized primarily as blockers and rarely as receivers. The pair combined for only 17 receptions, 217 yards and one touchdown over the course of the 12-game season.
Vannett and Heuerman expect that to change this season.
“The big thing we’ve been working on this spring is just being the every-down tight end,” said Heuerman, who is entering his junior season.
Tight ends/fullbacks coach Tim Hinton said his players have to be “masters of all trades” this season.
“We ask them to be very good attack blockers, we ask them to be able to move and block, we ask them to be able to perimeter block, we ask them to be able to run long routes, short routes … they got to be pass protectors when they’re asked to do it,” Hinton said.
Last year, the Buckeyes used then-redshirt senior hybrid wide receiver/tight end Jake Stoneburner as a receiving tight end most often in passing situations. This year, the Buckeyes need Heuerman and Vannett to fill Stoneburner’s role. They might also be asked to play at fullback, where the Buckeyes lost Zach Boren and Adam Homan from last year’s team.
“We really don’t have any more fullbacks, so that’s when me and Jeff and (redshirt freshman tight end Blake Thomas) got to step up and take on that role,” said Vannett, who is entering his redshirt sophomore season. “Sometimes we’ll pass protect or we’ll be the sweep blocker, so they use us in various ways.”
Vannett said for further evidence, look at how the players are being positioned now. “Just see how they’re using us,” Vannett said. “(They’re) splitting us out wide in some sets (and) putting us in the wing back … They want to see a versatile athlete out there.”
Vannett, Heuerman and Thomas are the only three players listed as tight ends on OSU’s spring roster.
Vannett said Thomas is “probably one of the toughest players” on the team. “He’s just one of those hard-nosed football players and he won’t back down from anything,” Thomas said.
Hinton said Thomas is a “very interesting kid” but that he is not quite ready to play yet after redshirting last season.
“He’s a great kid, he’s got great toughness, he works extremely hard, he’s really a young man that’ll be probably predominantly used more in the run game than the pass game, but he has the ability to fit you up and run block you very well,” Hinton said. “He’s got to get confidence in himself.”
A fourth tight end, Marcus Baugh, will join the Buckeyes this fall as a true freshman.
As for the more veteran tight ends, Vannett said that as he and Heuerman become more comfortable within the offense, junior Braxton Miller and the Buckeyes’ other quarterbacks are becoming more comfortable throwing them the ball.
“Just a year ago, we were just getting used to the offense and we were young,” Vannett said. “Now you know, we got a year under the belt in the system, and me and Jeff are getting real comfortable with the offense, and I think the quarterbacks are getting comfortable with us as well.”
Vannett said he expects both Heuerman and himself to play greater roles in the Buckeye offense this year.
“When they do throw me the ball, you just got to make plays, and that goes for everyone,” Vannett said. “When they call upon your number, you just got to go out there, be confident and make plays.”
At 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds, Vannett said he believes he and 6-foot-6, 250-pound Heuerman can create mismatches for opposing defenses with their size and ability to stretch the field.
Heuerman said he doesn’t anticipate there being any issues between he and Vannett when it comes to sharing playing time.
“We got a great combination at tight end,” Heuerman said. “You can’t just play with one tight end. There’s not really teams that play with just one tight end.”
With similar measurables, Heuerman and Vannett might not be looked at as complementary players to one another, but Heuerman said their similar skill sets actually help one another.
“Running two tight end sets, you don’t want to have one that just does this, and one that just does that,” Heuerman said. “Both of us being able to do everything actually benefits both of us.” Hinton said he expects his tight ends to play a “major part” in getting the offense, which Meyer has said to be operating at a “60 percent” level, closer to 100 percent. Nonetheless, he said there is still development that needs to take place with both his tight ends and the offense as a whole to get them to that level.
“We got a lot of confidence between the quarterbacks and the tight ends, we got to keep it,” Hinton said. “It’s our job to keep it by catching the ball, being in the right places, running the right patterns, making the right man/zone adjustments and those sort of things. I’m very pleased with that development, but we still got a lot of room to get better.”
The Buckeyes have three more spring practices prior to the LiFESports Spring Game scheduled for Saturday at 1 p.m. at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati.