In OSU's 2013 season, TE Jeff Heuerman logged 26 receptions for 466 yards and four touchdowns and was the third most productive receiver on the roster. Before the season, he was projected to be one of the most dangerous tight ends in the entire Big Ten, and a legitimate professional prospect. That production has not been there this season. So what happened?
The most obvious answer is that Heuerman isn't healthy, thanks to an offseason surgery that sidelined him for much of spring football activities. According to Urban Meyer, this injury wasn't ever expected to translate to limited game output. In Meyer's words, Heuerman "didn't need as many reps" anyway during spring practices, so it didn't initially look like there would be any issues this season. Meyer has always been a big Heuerman fan, calling him a "a guy who's got that kind of work ethic and leadership." When Heuerman's injury came to light there was no reason to expect that Heuerman wouldn't return to his 2013 pace.
It doesn't appear that he's operating at anything less than 100%, which makes his failure to make a meaningful contribution in the passing game a little odd. Particularly as the NFL pushes more towards pass-catching tight ends, it's surprising to see Heuerman not being groomed as such.
Also, Nick Vannett is coming on strong. Although their receiving stats are similar, (through eight games, Vannett has 11 catches for 126 yards) Vannett's already found the end zone three times to Heuerman's one. Vannett's picked up a couple of Heuerman's TDs in the Rutgers game when Heuerman ran out of steam at the goal line, but that doesn't explain the general decline in Heuerman's stat lines, since Heuerman has more targets over the past five games than Vannett (12 for Heuerman vs. 8 for Vannett). Ohio State's passing attack has been focused on tight ends this year just as much as last year. Through eight games, the Buckeyes's tight-end corps (Heuerman, Vannett and problem-child Marcus Baugh) have logged 21 receptions, on pace to match 2013's 34-reception total. So it's not that OSU's offensive game plan has minimized the role of the tight end; if anything, one would expect Heuerman to be feasting in this more tight end focused passing attack.
It appears that Heuerman is being used more as a run-blocker than a passing target this year. Anyone watching the games can tell that Heuerman isn't being targeted as much this year. Todd McShay noted that this year Heuerman is "generally utilized as an in-line blocker, a role he excels in." But McShay also thinks Heuerman has "plenty of receiving ability waiting to be unearthed by an NFL offensive coordinator," and compared Heuerman to Zach Ertz, the Philadelphia Eagle tight end. So while Heuerman has all the talent to be a receiving tight-end, Ohio State may just have an embarrassment of riches at tight end, which allows them to use Heuerman to plow the road for runners and keep Vannett fresh for receiving and scoring downs.
It could just be that JT Barrett is simply more comfortable throwing to fellow second-teamer Vannett, and the timing and chemistry between these two may be better than with Heuerman. With Barrett at the wheel of this offense, it makes sense that Vannett would benefit with more trust, more looks and more touches. It may also be that Heuerman doesn't have the durability necessary to come back from this injury at 100%. As Barrett develops and the offense continues to expand, it will be interesting to see if the second half of Heuerman's season looks more like 2013. Luckily, Ohio State has Nick Vannett in the meantime.
Is this situation permanent? It's unlikely, after all, that Heuerman forgot how to play football. If his health has been the issue for his regression in the box score, there's still a chance he could heal and become the playmaker that many thought he could be going into the season. Barring additional injuries, this offensive line is going to continue to get better, and so is J.T. Barrett, which will free Heuerman from some blocking responsibilities and give him more chances in the passing game. It's possible that given favorable matchups down the stretch, the big Heuerman Game is still on the schedule this season too.
The reasons for a dip in box score production are all there, but that doesn't necessarily mean it will be the case all season, or that they tell the complete story of Jeff Heuerman's season. There's still plenty of football to be played. This Saturday would be a great time to flip the script.