In case you missed last week's preview of the wide receivers, we're well in the midst of pushing our way through the 2013 Ohio State offensive with defense not too far on the horizon. We've perused the skill-position players on offense and identified the speedsters likely to contribute in big ways on offense, while giving a shout out to the scout-teamers and freshmen that may have a shot at catching or running the ball both right away and in a few years in scarlet and gray. Now it's time to get to the beef of the offense, starting with the tight ends and fullbacks on the roster.
Tight ends in Urban Meyer's offense are not only used to catch the ball and block, they are susceptible to lining up in the backfield at H-back in four wide sets (such as Jordan Reed and Aaron Hernandez were accustomed to doing at Florida) either being used as a decoy or catching the ball on clever screens. From Tom Herman's time at Rice, tight ends were used primarily either on the line or out of the backfield (such as with now Texans' tight end, James Casey).
The differences in utilization by both offensive minds are subtle and sometimes lost on the casual fan, but whether out of the backfield, lined up out wide, or coming off the line, there's a variety of ways Ohio State can beat you with a tight end. Jake Stoneburner (regardless of how you want to classify him positionally), for example, lined up mostly out wide or along the offensive line as a tight end or wide receiver flexed out, while Nick Vannett and Jeff Heuerman spent most of their time lined up offset in the backfield. The latter two also saw added snaps at the H-back position, especially after Zach Boren moved to linebacker.
Tight ends and H-backs also must be ready to go down the seam, a feat which we saw Nick Vannett and Jake Stoneburner accomplish several times last year and which hopefully will continue into 2013, as all Ohio State's tight ends have the capability to be matchup problems. The underused/converted-to-wide receiver Jake Stoneburner will not be walking through the door, as he has graduated and will be moving on to the NFL as a probable third day pick, but let's take a look at who may replace him and who will garner the starting role.
Rising junior Jeff Heuerman and rising sophomore Nick Vannett look to be battling it out for the number one spot on the depth chart at tight end as they did the entirety of last season. Both are of a similar height and build, with Heuerman a Cam Newton-ish 6'5, 250 and Vannett slightly bigger at 6'6, 255. Both of these men are huge but with soft hands. They have the agility to block fast players while the strength to temporarily subdue even the largest of defensive opponents. Vannett contributed 9 receptions for 130 yards, while Heuerman caught 8 passes for 94 yards and a touchdown against Nebraska. At this point, the race for who will be the starter will most likely be decided in camp.
These two are for all intents and purposes 1 and 1A atop the depth chart, and at this point, only seniority puts Heuerman at the top. I expect to see them both lined up in the backfield at the H-back position some as well,. The only time these guys will line up anywhere besides the backfield or along the line of scrimmage will most likely be in the red zone, but expect to see #86 and #81 running down the seam (hashmarks) or out of the backfield.
Newcomer Marcus Baugh is a tantalizing prospect. Baugh is a 6'4, 229-pound true freshman from California and may be the most physically talented Ohio State tight end since Rickey Dudley. While stereotypes like Percy Harvin-type can get a bit overused, it does look a bit like Urban Meyer may have found his Ohio State analogue to Aaron Hernandez. Being a bit smaller than Heuerman or Vannett, Baugh is also a bit faster than those two and provides matchup problems wherever he lines up. Don't be surprised if Baugh ends up having a big impact on the team, perhaps sooner rather than later.
Neither rising sophomore Blake Thomas nor redshirt freshman walk-on Ryan Carter (both local to Columbus) had any statistics last year, but are expected to fight for backup roles this season. Carter is 6'6 and a (relatively) slender 225 and is more suited to a true tight end role, while Blake Thomas may even see some time at fullback or H-back, weighing in at 6'3, 238. Carter is unlikely to see the field, but depending on how creative Meyer and Herman get, Thomas may work his way into the rotation yet.
Now, onto the fullbacks. Fullback is a light position for the Buckeyes, as only two players are currently listed at that position on ohiostatebuckeyes.com. Devin Hill, an incoming transfer from Purdue, is going to be a walk-on. Hill played running back at Purdue and redshirted, so he still has two years of eligibility left. He's also presently listed at running back (and given his size, might be no accident). It's not out of the question he could play a Larry Centers type role for Ohio State once he's sat out his transfer year.
Hill joins fellow walk-on William Houston, another Columbus native, at this spot. The position is being marginalized in football across all levels, as the spread systems so rampant today do not use a true fullback outside of goal line looks. Houston's physically talented though, and while it likely won't happen in year one, he could see playing time early.
Possibly the best story on the team is that of Grandview Heights native Craig Cataline, a former Navy security officer who spent twelve months deployed in Iraq guarding oil fields before returning to Columbus. Cataline is listed as a fullback, but has not received much playing time at that position due to his value on special teams. Mostly, he is used as a specialty kick-blocker and ripped the ball out of Miami's punter's hands last year so that Bradley Roby could scoop up the ball in the end zone. Watch for #35 to flash on special teams this year, but he will rarely (if at all) see the field on offense. None of the current fullbacks on the roster have the skills, versatility or leadership of the departed Zach Boren, so look for the H-backs mentioned above to get quite a bit more run at the position. Marcus Baugh and Blake Thomas are possible contributors here as well if Urban Meyer and Tom Herman choose to enlist them.
Overall, Ohio State's tight ends and fullbacks are far from a deep group, but with Heuerman, Baugh and Vannett leading the way, there are enough impact players to be viable targets for Braxton Miller if his receivers so happen to be covered downfield. Look for some seam routes, dive runs, and matchup problems in the red zone from this position all next year.