Marcus Baugh is by all accounts a pretty great football player and person. I mean, the guy may not be super active on Twitter, but when he is, we are treated to low-key hilarious Ricky Bobby quotes and timeless Boobie Miles words of advice.
Last season Baugh made a name for himself as the Buckeyes' number two tight end, consistently providing sound blocks in the Buckeyes' two tight end packages. #BaughMania reached its height during Ohio State's recent spring game, with seven catches for 64 yards, Baugh displayed surprising athleticism for his 6'5 255-pound frame, and production seldom seen from an Ohio State tight end.
In an offense that just lost its top five receiving threats, this could be the perfect opportunity for the returning Baugh to leverage his familiarity with J.T. Barrett into a big year, right?
Sadly, I disagree with the idea that this could finally be the year a talented Ohio State tight end breaks out in Urban Meyer's offense. This is in no way a slight on Baugh and his skillset, but expecting a breakout year from Baugh goes against everything we should expect from an Urban Meyer run offense.
Tight ends under Urban Meyer
The talent has always been there for Meyer's tight ends. First it was leading Fickell-era receiver Jake Stoneburner who was garnering high expectations from the media, as well as himself. However, even after moving from an offense that once threw the ball four times THE ENTIRE GAME against Illinois to the lethal Meyer spread attack, Stoneburner was relegated to an afterthought in Meyer's offense. Sure, Stoneburner managed to increase his yardage and reception totals with Meyer on board, but a receiver stat line of 16 receptions for 269 yards and four touchdowns is hardly anything to get excited over, and this is even after Meyer dubbed Stoneburner as a player who could seamlessly play both tight end and wide receiver.
But maybe Stoneburner wasn't the athlete we all thought he was. Maybe Jeff Heuerman, drafted in the third round of the 2015 NFL Draft by the Denver Broncos, would be the man to push the tight end to the forefront of Meyer's offense. The 2013 season saw success from Heuerman in the form of 26 receptions for 466 yards and four touchdowns, which was great, however a lot of that success came on plays like this:
In an offense that was essentially "find different ways for Carlos Hyde and Braxton Miller to run all over the defense", Heuerman's role was to make the defense pay when their eyes got caught too deep in the Buckeyes' backfield. This is the reason for Heuerman's very high yard per catch total, but the fact of the matter is that Heuerman was usually the lucky recipient of a blown coverage for a lot of his production.
While injuries played a role in Heuerman's senior year yards and touchdown totals being cut in half, the emergence of Nick Vannett as a receiving threat also made Heuerman's already scarce opportunities even more rare. Vannett managed to score five touchdowns in Ohio State's magical 2014 season, and while a different Buckeyes quarterback meant a more sophisticated passing game, both Vannett and Heuerman continued to mostly produce by virtue of their involvement in the running game. This is evidenced by Vannett's touchdown in the national championship against Oregon:
With a productive junior season, and a skill set that had scouts comparing Vannett to the great Rob Gronkowski, the sky seemed to be the limit for Vannett's senior season in Columbus. You know where this is going. For the first time in Meyer's tenure at Ohio State the top two tight ends on the roster failed to find the end zone even once, as the plays that used to leave tight ends streaking down the field seemed to be replaced with more wide receiver focused play calls.
Put simply, Urban Meyer has never utilized his obviously talented tight ends at Ohio State, so why should we expect a change now? There are two key reasons that potentially point toward a Baugh breakout.
Spring Game hero
While I'm not quite in the camp that says any spring game takeaways are completely useless, I do agree that there is a wild amount of speculation that comes from basically an open practice. We've seen the great Michael Thomas flourish in the spring game before later transitioning to a hero on Fall Saturdays, but there was still an entire season between these two feats.
It is true that Baugh's situation is notably different from a guy like Thomas, as Baugh, barring injury, projects to be Ohio State's starting tight end this season. The increased usage in the spring game that led to six receptions for Baugh could be a sign that Meyer is finally ready to more regularly incorporate the tight end into his offense, or it could be a case of Barrett finding more time than usual to check down to his tight end in a spring game that typically lacks quarterback pressure and big plays downfield. You can decide for yourself, but I'm taking the latter option.
Ohio State weapon selection
The other case for a Baugh breakout is in regards to Ohio State's weapon repertoire. Heuerman and Vannett undoubtedly saw their opportunities decrease at the hands of the numerous NFL wide receivers in the Ohio State offense, and Baugh just saw most of those playmakers depart for the NFL. Add in the stable quarterback situation and a new running back and it appears that all the stars are aligning for Baugh to get all the opportunities in the world.
Once again, you can take these above facts as a sign that Baugh is sure to breakout, but I wouldn't be too quick to sleep on the Buckeyes options at receiver. Noah Brown would have started last season if not for a broken leg. Corey Smith makes an impact in his own special way, and a barrage of skilled freshmen receivers is highlighted by the talented Austin Mack. This doesn't even mention the return of Curtis Samuel or the potential emergence of Mike Weber. All in all, where does Baugh get his touches from?
None of this is to say I'm predicting Baugh to have a terrible statistical season, however the past has shown us that Meyer seldom finds room in his offense to consistently feature the tight end, no matter how talented the tight end, and no matter how depleted the roster. With Baugh's athleticism and large frame there is no reason why he can't be a red zone monster if properly utilized. The question is, does Urban Meyer care?