Folks, I’m going out on a limb this week. And maybe patting myself on the back just a little bit. Tight ends don’t traditionally get a lot of hype and/or coverage, especially in college football. Buckeye fans love Jeremy Ruckert, but I think that we all feel like he is going to be a bigger weapon at the next level than he is for the Buckeyes.
Ohio State does not often target Ruckert, let alone any of their tight ends for the last handful of years, despite the talent they bring to the table. Fortunately for us, these guys work hard to become great blockers, and that still becomes a feather in their cap(s) come NFL Draft time.
Other TEs garner attention from scouts and coaches exclusively for their pass-catching acumen, and that ability to make contested catches and earn yards after the catch is what makes Indiana’s Peyton Hendershot this week’s Offensive Player to Watch.
Gene Ross and I (of LGHL’s Hangout in the Holy Land fame) actually previewed Big Ten TEs prior to the season, and I singled out Hendershot as a guy I was really high on. He is a true “move” TE, better utilized in the passing game than as a blocker. Honestly, any utilization of him as a blocker is probably a waste of time for the Hoosiers, because the dude can make plays with the ball in his hands. The good play outweighs the bad, so he is not somebody you want to take off the field just because of his poor blocking. Hendershot is only 37 yards behind Ty Fryfogle for the Indiana team lead, despite missing a game. He has also added a touchdown, putting him in a tie for the lead… yikes.
Indiana’s offense has been riding on the struggle bus all season, which is why you see a guy with one touchdown tied for the team lead. Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. has either taken a giant step back, or was still struggling to regain his pre-ACL injury form early in the season. However, now battling a separated shoulder, it is TBD whether or not we see him taking snaps for the Hoosiers on Saturday night. Fifth-year senior Jack Tuttle started in his place against Michigan State, and did not exactly light the world on fire. Whether Penix Jr. makes a return, Tuttle gets another start, or even if true freshman Donaven McCulley gets some time, Hendershot will be a heavily targeted weapon for whoever gets the nod at quarterback.
Hendershot and Fryfogle have accounted for over 40 percent of Indiana’s receiving yards. And again, this is with Hendershot missing a game. The Hoosiers rarely target running backs in this year’s passing attack — the Michigan St game was an exception, as Stephen Carr more than doubled his season total for receptions — and their third and fourth receivers have combined for only 25 catches.
To be fair, the team has been banged up a bit, but this is not the same potent offense that Ohio State saw in 2020. Indiana came to Columbus last season, and Penix Jr. exploded for 491 yards and five touchdowns — most of them put up by Fryfogle, at the expense of Shaun Wade. Hendershot only chipped in four catches for 32 yards in that game, but I believe he will be a much bigger part of the gameplan in this year’s matchup.
Miles Marshall, David Ellis, and Whop Philyor all made tangible contributions against Ohio State last year, but of the three, only Marshall has produced anything for Indiana in 2021. Philyor is off to the NFL, Marshall only has 12 receptions on the season, and Ellis is a backup RB/KR. Hendershot is a primary playmaker for Indiana’s offense this season, but it is not his first go-round as a reliable target for the team.
Hendershot had a great year in 2019, totaling 52 receptions and 622 yards, to go with four touchdowns. He played in all 13 games and looked to be on his way to potentially becoming an NFL prospect. However, he had some off-field issues after the season, and his actions derailed a lot of the progress he had made as a football player. He averaged less than three catches per game in 2020 (4+ in 2019, 2021) and failed to make a real impact for an improving football team.
Now, more than a year removed from those off-field transgressions, Hendershot has rebounded on the field. The main reason I will have my eyes on the 6’4”, 250 pound tight end, is because he will presumably see a lot of linebacker and/or safety coverage. The Buckeyes have not faced a receiving TE with Hendershot’s skillset yet this season. How those positions perform on Saturday night will be a good litmus test for the rest of the Big Ten schedule. Penn State, Michigan, and especially Iowa (if they make it to Indy), all look to get the TE involved in the passing game, so it is a preview of possible things to come.
Hendershot is no Rob Gronkowski, but the other TE’s Ohio State has faced this year are on par with Glenn and/or Chris Gronkowski (no offense to the Gronk family). Hendershot is legit. He is very athletic for his position and does well with the ball in his hands. I have not seen him targeted a ton downfield, but he makes a killing underneath. The Hoosiers like to have him fake a block or come off of it very early, and sneak out into the flat. You will also see Hendershot run a lot of short crosses and hitch routes when the team has him split out wide. This means you will likely see him in the middle of the field quite often, matched up with those linebackers and safeties.
Peyton Hendershot helps Indiana get to the painted grass first against #8 Cincinnati pic.twitter.com/WWcXXkBPig— PFF College (@PFF_College) September 18, 2021
Teradja Mitchell, Cody Simon, and others have not been asked to do a lot in the passing game. Simon possesses crazy athleticism and does have an interception on the year, but he has also been out of position on a few completions. Mitchell has not made any memorable plays in the passing game (to my recollection), but he gets to the ball quickly and is essentially playing the punisher role: see ball, hurt ball carrier. We’ve seen Tommy Eichenberg on passing downs, and I have no comment on that. Steele Chambers is still a bit of a wildcard due to his limited experience. None of the current OSU linebackers can cover like Tampa Bay’s Devin White, so Hendershot presents a challenge unlike any they have seen this season.
If Matt Barnes and Co. prefer to follow Hendershot with a safety or the bullet, it could prove to be a better coverage matchup. It could also prove to be a disaster. Marcus Williamson and Cam Martinez lack the necessary size to contain Hendershot. Even Ronnie Hickman, who is a few inches taller and has 10-15 pounds on either safety, still gives up three inches and 40 pounds to the Indiana TE. I also don’t think the coaches would want to “assign” Hickman to a coverage role when he’s been so good patrolling the entire field.
This defense has been playing very well, but previous teams did not have the luxury of a solid pass-catching TE like Hendershot. It’s a wrinkle or a variable that the coaching staff will have to deal with. I’m not going to pretend I have a gameplan for limiting Hendershot’s production, but I do think it needs to be a group effort. For as much as the linebackers have shown improvement, they are simply not adept (yet) at covering tights ends for a majority of the game. If the Buckeyes deploy a safety as a true shadow, then it at least opens them up to some of the same struggles they experienced while running one-high looks early in the season.
I would love to see Craig Young get involved, solely as a “tight end specialist”. Young has looked good in limited playing time, and for some reason, the staff seems intent on using him in the secondary. Well, he’s 6’3”, 225 (doubt it) and looks like a create-a-player in Madden: linebacker size, with DB speed. So why not pit hybrid against hybrid? Young has the speed to get to spots before Hendershot, and more than enough size to body him up or make tackles once the Indiana TE has the ball in his hands.
Ohio State coaches need to have a solid plan in place for the Hoosiers, and I believe that they will. After a rough couple of weeks to open the season, this staff has adapted quite well. Peyton Hendershot introduces a variable that coaches and players have not previously needed to account for, but it is one that will be a common theme moving forward in the Big Ten season. He is a big-bodied pass catcher, but OSU has the athletes necessary to limit his production. I personally need some more Craig Young in my life, but I’ll settle for guys being in the right place at the right time against a skilled tight end.