One of the most influential offseason conversations every year for Ohio State is about the tight end position. Year after year the Buckeyes have a group of talented individuals at the position, and the fanbase always wants to see more production. New tight ends coach Keenan Bailey coming from the receiver room, should bring even more expectations that Ohio State is going to throw to the tight ends.
For years, I have not jumped on the bandwagon of needing better tight end production. If the position group blocks well and is able to catch the ball when it’s thrown their way, the success is in the job being done right. But this doesn’t stop people from wanting to see the stat sheet filled. Last season, Cade Stover had more catches than any tight end since Rickey Dudley and was the third-leading receiver in receptions last year.
That being said there is always a want for more, and this season I am fully on board with 2023 being “The Year of the Tight End” movement. This season Ohio State will finally have a tight end that is not only serviceable but an absolute weapon. As a group, there is more talent in the room than there has been for a long time.
Now looking back, Ohio State has had its share of solid tight ends who have not only been great Buckeyes but have carved out solid careers in the NFL. Being “pro-ready” is not necessarily the ideal thing for a college Te, but there is a reason Jeremy Ruckert was a second-round pick.
Every year, fans clamored for Ruckert to be utilized as the weapon that made the one-hand snag in the Big Ten title, which never came. After a huge success last season, I want to make a promise that as a collective unit, the Buckeyes will be the best tight end room in the country.
A Tight End with more catches than Rickey Dudley
Last year, Cade Stover was about to break the landmark set by Ohio State’s former basketball player turned football tight end Rickey Dudley, but was knocked out of the College football playoff matchup. Dudley and his 37 catches still lead the tight end position as the most in OSU history, and that was all the way back in 1995.
With all the talented tight ends that have been through the program, there feels like there should be zero reasons that Ohio State has not had a tight end with more catches than 37. Stover’s 36 catches were the most since that season, and the Buckeyes definitely had him in the game plan early against the Bulldogs.
The only way this doesn’t work out is if the Buckeyes get additional production from the rest of the room. Ohio State only had nine catches outside of Stover last season between the trio of Mitch Rossi, Gee Scott Jr., and Joe Royer. This offseason has been filled with confidence growing in Scott Jr. and Royer, which might not bode well for the catch total of Stover.
What it does bode well for is the “Year of the Tight End,” adding to the two other tight ends is the talented, supremely athletic Jelani Thurman. As a group of four this unit will have the most tight end production in a long time. A big reason is the safety valve role this position has played, and the Buckeyes using this as a weapon against opposing defenses.
Tight ends as safety valves and downfield weapons
Ohio State has been utilizing its tight ends to attack additional holes in the defense that the elite receiver room opens up. Last season, when Ohio State made teams plan for stopping Marvin Harrison Jr., Emeka Egbuka, and Julian Fleming, Stover was utilized to find the holes that opened up because of this.
Using some clips from last season, we can see how the Buckeyes were able to find easy completions as well as big plays with the tight end group. Early in the season, a staple of the downfield passing attack’s foundation was laid. Ohio State would push downfield vertically with their receivers, fake a stretch toss play, and after faking a block would sneak out Stover on a wheel route. Stover clears the linebacker covering the flat, and the first overall pick C.J. Stroud delivered a perfect ball to the tight end running by himself.
In the next play, Stover showed what happens when the safety is forced to not only monitor the tight end but also be available to help on the receiver to the same side of the field. Ohio State runs a soft play-action with a show fake on their wide zone. Stover beats the linebacker up the field and the safety widens to help outside. The safety is expecting a stronger reroute, without that Stover has the space to split the two safeties and make another big play. That moment of hesitation to help the receivers is all a player like Stover needs to get into space to make a play.
In the last play, Ohio State goes back to basics at the goal line. The Buckeyes sell a hard run fake, each player on the line of scrimmage down blocks to the left, and Stover gives a hard chip to sell the run-action. Stroud sells a hard-run fake on the naked boot which draws the defenders forward. This leaves the easiest touchdown of both Stroud and Stover’s seasons.
Ohio State was incredibly creative in how they utilized Stover last season, and with the receivers returning this should create a lot of opportunities for the Buckeye tight ends. For the Buckeyes, defenses will have to pick who beats them and many teams will take their chances with the tight ends. When that happens it is up to the tight ends to make the plays when their name is called for the “Year of the Tight End.”
Run Blocking is still vital, especially with a young offensive line
Last season Ohio State struggled in short-yardage situations and a reason for that was Stover’s struggles blocking upfield at the second level. When the Buckeyes were using Stover as in-line blocker, he was fine and was an extension of the offensive line. The issues came on bubble screens and when he had to cut off the back side linebacker.
Looking at the run game struggles Stover was not the only part of the issue, but with a young offensive line the importance of the tight end as a run-blocker has more importance this season. Stover had a 70.5 run blocking grade according to PFF which is a solid, but to the ire of the fanbase blocking is the most important part of this tight end position.
With Ryan Day running a significant amount of 12-personnel, the loss of Mitch Rossi hurts as he had an 82.3 run blocking grade, Losing the second part of that tandem is going to be a big hole to fill for Keenan Bailey. Filling the Rossi void is going to fall on Royer or Scott Jr., both guys had run locking grades under 60, and to be blunt that is not good enough.
The strength of Kevin Wilson as teaching the blocking aspects of the position, that leaves Bailey in an interesting place with expectations for this position. There will be raised expectations on catching the ball, but sticking to what the Buckeyes truly need from this position is the real task at hand. For the “Year of the Tight End” to be fully successful, dominant run blocking is a significant part of it.
After the tight ends had their availability this week, Baily spoke about challenging them to all become more versatile football players. For the tight end position to be successful they have to be what the position was designed to be, a weapon in the blocking scheme and as a pass catcher. When talking about this, he cited the expertise of both offensive line coach Justin Frye and offensive coordinator Brian Hartline with where they need to be at both skills.
“When you come here and play tight end at Ohio State, you’re gonna get coached like Jaxon got coached and like Paris Johnson got coached,” Bailey said.
For Ohio State, the “Year of the Tight End” means the unit truly embodies both parts of the position. As Ryan Day always says, the tight ends need to be elite blockers to get on the field. We’ve seen the offensive staff reward tight ends for their dirty work, and we also saw that they are trusted as a weapon when defenses overcommit.
This year, I want to see the Dudley catch total finally fall, I want a new trivia question to answer. But with that being said, a successful year for the tight ends won’t fully be defined by one player having 38 catches. The real success of this group will come when they spring off a long touchdown with a great block in space or pick up a huge third down in a crucial moment of a game.
This year will be the year of the tight end, and I will stake my entire reputation on that.