How tight ends can be the key to continuing OSU’s offensive evolution

Roughly 15 consecutive spring football seasons at Ohio State have been bound together by one annual inquiry.

Quarterback competitions are always high-profile, but they come and go.

New starting running backs are found, and offensive line depth charts inevitably refill no matter how many players graduated from the year before.

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But what everyone really wants to know is, of course, will the tight ends catch more passes this season?

A fascination shared by many fans and reporters alike, an unscientific study indicates the last time it was not a front-burner topic was in all likelihood the spring of 2004.

That was just a few months after Ben Hartsock and Ryan Hamby combined to catch 51 passes for 480 yards and five touchdowns for an otherwise forgettable 2003 offense that was the weak link for a team that entered the season with legitimate hopes of repeating as national champion.

(The quarterback battle between Justin Zwick and Troy Smith gobbled up a lot of attention that spring of ’04, too.)

Ohio State has had plenty of useful tight ends since, but they’ve rarely filled up the stat sheet.

The latter could be true again this season, but that doesn’t mean the foursome of Luke Farrell, Rashod Berry, Jake Hausmann and Jeremy Ruckert won’t be an important part of the Ohio State offense.

To hear offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson tell it, they might even be the key to how the whole attack comes together in the first full season under head coach Ryan Day.

“To me the fun part is when you can put guys on the field and they can do multiple jobs and the defense doesn’t know what’s going on,” said Wilson, who is also tight ends coach. “Because if you have to substitute and you put a big guy out there and they just run the ball and then you have to substitute, after a while, they go, ‘Hey the passing tight end is in,’ or the big running back is in so it’s an inside run.”

While J.K. Dobbins is looking for his third straight 1,000-yard rushing season and a solid group of receivers returns to catch passes from new quarterback Justin Fields (or Matthew Baldwin), the tight ends are a significant part of developing an entire offensive package that makes zeroing in on Dobbins or a particular pass catcher difficult.

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And if more than one tight end proves to be able to block, run routes, get open and catch the ball — minimum requirements for getting playing time at all — more than one could see the field at a time more often than in the past.

That would create even more overall options for Day, Wilson and company as play-callers.

“When you put two of them on the field, they both could be tight ends (or) one could come into the backfield. One could flex out. Both could flex out,” Wilson said. “So every job he’s doing as the second tight end he already does because that’s what the first tight end does.”

It’s something they have always considered but not done for a simple reason.

“The second tight end was never as good as the second receiver or the third receiver or the fourth receiver,” Wilson said. “So what you’re gonna do is play your best 11 or 12 or 13 or 14 or 15 people. So if the tight end position is better and their skill set says they can do a lot of different jobs, now you change formations but they get on the field.”

Notably, a two-tight end package as an important part of the Ohio State offense in 2014, but since Jeff Heuerman graduated from that team finding a second tight end worthy of playing time has been rare.

Of course, former coach Urban Meyer’s love of stacking his roster with speedy receivers who need playing time of their own was also a factor.

“Previously because of the receiving strength we’ve had, we’ve been a lot more spread (formation-wise) with one tight end,” Wilson said. “Now our (veteran) receivers are doing well. Our young receivers are doing well, so we’re not going to have a major drop-off in talent at receiver. It’s not like we’re trying to have more tight ends because the receiver position isn’t going to be strong. The receiver position is going to be strong. It’s just our tight end position is getting stronger that they can get on the field more.”

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