Spring Forecast: Tight End / Fullback
By Tony Gerdeman
COLUMBUS, Ohio — When Urban Meyer was hired after the 2011 season, it didn't take long for people to mentally place tight end Jake Stoneburner into Meyer's offense.
After all, in 2009 Gator tight end Aaron Hernandez led Florida with 68 receptions. When Meyer hired Tom Herman as his offensive coordinator, they looked at Herman's history with tight end James Casey, who caught 111 passes in 2008, and folks started thinking that Stoneburner was finally going to bust out.
That break out never materialized. Stoneburner was moved around from tight end to receiver, finishing with 16 receptions. All told, the Ohio State tight ends and fullbacks caught around 30 passes last season. It wasn't solely their fault that they weren't more involved in the passing game because there wasn't always much of a passing game to be involved in.
Quarterback Braxton Miller is expected to be an improved passer this season, and as goes his improvement, so goes the tight end involvement in the offense.
Who's Coming Back?
Photo by Jim Davidson
Out of all of the tight ends and fullbacks who saw time last season, the Buckeyes return just Jeff Heuerman (6-5 250) and Nick Vannett (6-6 255). Granted, they are two very talented tight ends, and Urban Meyer likes them both, but they only had eight and nine receptions last season, respectively.
Both are big targets who are solid at the point of attack as well as 10 yards down the field. Vannett may stretch the field a bit more than Heuerman, but both have earned raves that rarely fell on Stoneburner last season.
There is also redshirt freshman tight end Blake Thomas (6-3 238). Thomas comes from the storied St. Ignatius football program in Cleveland. With two established players in front of him, and incoming freshman Marcus Baugh behind him, this is going to be a very big spring for Thomas.
Expectations Heading Into Spring
Photo by Jim Davidson
Both Heuerman and Vannett will be expected to pick up where they left off last season. They are now veterans entering their third year on campus, though Vannett is still just a redshirt sophomore.
They should provide plenty of outlets for Miller in the passing game, and Meyer and Herman will want them both to be able to test a defense down the field. They will need to show their quarterback that they are reliable, and by doing so, he won't be locked onto Devin Smith or Corey Brown on third down.
For Thomas, as the third tight end, there won't be a lot asked of him, but he will still be expected to perform. Given the number of two tight end looks the Buckeyes will give, Thomas should expect to get plenty of reps with the twos and threes.
Best Case Scenario
The absolute best case scenario this spring would be the tight ends performing so well that the coaches can't decide who should get more snaps between Heuerman and Vannett.
They would both give defenses fits, neither providing the back seven any relief. Basically, if all goes well, they will be interchangeable and very productive.
One to Watch For
Let's go ahead and watch out for Nick Vannett. He showed a knack for getting behind linebackers last season, and that should only continue during the spring.
It's doubtful that Vannett will be running any 4.6s soon, but the overall threat of this offense is enough to allow him to slip past worried defenders.
Trending Up or Down
The fullback position as a whole may be trending down. Currently, the official Ohio State roster lists just two fullbacks, Craig Cataline (6-2 226) and true freshman William Houston (5-11 260), and both are walk-ons.
Houston could be a player to keep an eye on. If he can run block there will be a place for him. Keep in mind that when Zach Boren was at fullback last year, Braxton Miller rushed for 763 yards in six games. When Boren was moved to linebacker, Miller's numbers dropped to 508 yards in six games.
The tight end and fullback are interchangeable in this offense, and almost indistinguishable. What that means is that the best blocker will get snaps regardless of his position.
This could be a breakout spring for both Heuerman and Vannett, and they'll need it in order to prove to Meyer and Herman that they deserve the football.
Jim Tressel often cited the talent of his wide receivers as the reason the tight ends didn't get the ball. It's a completely valid reason, and one that no tight end on this current roster wants to fall victim to.
Urban Meyer knows the value of a talented tight end, and he will certainly be looking for that player on this roster. Whether or not he finds it will be up to the players to decide.
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