Running teams in the Big Ten love their tight ends. Michigan, Iowa, Penn State – they put tight ends on the field, sometimes two or even three at a time. They’ll seal the corner on outside running plays. They’ll pull down the line and lead the attack into the middle. They’ll line up in the slot. They’ll line up at fullback. They’re all over the place, and they block, block, block.
Or they catch passes. For these running teams, the TEs are also favorite receivers. Sam Laporta is by far Iowa’s leading receiver, and Luke Schoonmaker is second only to Ronnie Bell for Michigan. Quick slants, delayed routes over the middle, hook patterns for a first down. Occupying linebackers, these tight ends are meant to complement the running game.
Ohio State usually has a tight end on the field, but his role is unlike those of most players at the position. Let’s see how.
The 2022 tight ends
First of all, let’s be clear. None of this year’s three top Buckeye tight ends – Cade Stover, Mitch Rossi, and Gee Scott Jr. – started as a tight end. Stover was a four-star outside linebacker in the Bucks’ 2019 class. In fact, he was the national No. 7 OLB in that class and ranked at 114 at any position. Scott Jr. was the No. 10 wide receiver in the class the following year. His national ranking (at any position) was No. 66. Not bad. And Mitch? He walked on in the summer of 2017 as a running back. This season is Rossi’s sixth as a Buckeye.
Rossi, at 6-foot, 245 lbs., is built like a fullback – and often plays there. The former WR Scott is built like – well, like a wide receiver. A big wide receiver, at 6-foot-3, 220. Stover has both the height (6-foot-4) and the weight (255) of a tight end. He at least looks like a tight end.
Recruiting tight ends
So, if the top three TEs aren’t really tight ends at all, doesn’t Day ever recruit any? Yes and no. The Buckeyes signed three-star Cormontae Hamilton in the class of 2019, three-star Joe Royer in the 2020 class, and three-star Sam Hart in 2021. With recruiting classes mainly filled with five- and four- star athletes, it appears that either the best tight ends don’t commit to OSU because the Bucks don’t use them traditionally, or that recruiting TEs hasn’t been a priority for Day and company.
I must point out that this year’s freshman class (2022) has four-star tight end Bennett Christian, a traditional tight end who ranked No. 20 at the position and No. 408 overall. Next year’s class has a top recruit at tight end – four-star Jelani Thurman, who ranks fourth at the position and 108 overall. Nevertheless, the two top players in Ohio State’s 2023 class are, of course, wide receivers.
Jeremy Ruckert joined the Buckeyes for the 2018 season, and he was almost the prototype for the position – 6-foot-5, 252 – and was the No. 2 ranked player at the position that year. And that was the year before Day took the helm.
The history of Day’s tight ends
Although Day inherited him, Ruckert was the starter for Day’s first three seasons as head coach. For the first two of those (2019 and 2020), Ruckert shared time with Luke Farrell, another traditional tight end. Day especially liked to use Ruckert and Farrell near the goal line. They would do a curl just over the line, a shallow slant, or run horizontally along the end line, using their height to snare deliberately high passes.
A high proportion of their catches were, accordingly, touchdowns. In 2019 they caught 21 passes for six TDs. Six TDs in 2020 from their 18 combined receptions. We started to see a change last year, as more balls were thrown to tight ends and the routes were more varied. Farrell was gone for 2021, but Ruckert, Stover, Scott, and Rossi combined for 40 catches but only four touchdowns.
The pattern that emerged last season has only sharpened this year. The three tight ends have already exceeded last year’s TD total (five so far this season) and the tight ends, with 30 in eight games, are on a pace to get more receptions. Granted, the wide receiver position has lost players to injury, perhaps making the TEs more attractive as targets.
How are the tight ends being used this year?
Cade Stover’s performance against Penn State last week, especially his 24-yard touchdown reception, is what called my attention to the difference. As a receiver, he ran patterns that we normally associate with wideouts. Overall, he had six catches on six targets for 78 yards and a touchdown. Both Marvin Harrison Jr. (37) and Emeka Egbuka (53) had longer receptions, but Stover’s 13 yards per reception average is like a number we’d expect from wide receivers.
As a blocker, Stover stood out, for better and for worse. In the decisive fourth quarter, Stover blocked one man out of the hole, then moved on to take out another to launch TreVeyon Henderson’s 41-yard TD run. On the other hand, Stover missed (two, three times) his blocks on defensive backs when OSU tried wideout screens. It appeared that Day was trying to set up a play where Stover would fake the block and go down the field as the defender bit on the screen. Maybe this week.
Rossi played a lot less at tight end but sometimes lined up in the backfield, either in the slot or as an actual fullback. For the day, Rossi rushed once for eight yards and caught one pass for 16 yards. He was effective because, with all of the spectacular talent on the field for the Buckeyes, Rossi’s involvement is unexpected.
The tight end play this year is interesting because it is, to my untutored eye, unusual. Ryan Day has obviously tailored the position to suit his passing offense and, more importantly, to suit the personnel that he has available to him at the position. As this group moves on and more traditional tight ends join the action, I will be curious to see how the players are used.