Tight Ends, Backs Could Catch Even More

For years, Ohio State fans wanted to see the Buckeyes' tight ends, not to mention their running backs, become more a part of the passing offense. That came true in a big way in 2010, but the numbers could go up again this fall as the Buckeyes break in a new quarterback and new wideouts.

Jacob Stoneburner has heard it before. Sure, this will be the year the Ohio State football team makes the tight end an integral part of the passing offense.

Last year, that came true to a certain extent. Stoneburner and Reid Fragel combined for 30 catches – but it was still just one-third of the total of Missouri's Michael Egnew and 24 short of the total of Mackey Award winner D.J. Williams of Arkansas alone.

"It usually not disappears, but sometimes we get on a roll other ways," Stoneburner said this spring.

But Stoneburner saw more reason for hope this spring, one year after the Ohio State offense did start to embrace throwing to players other than wide receivers. With the Buckeyes needing to break in a new starting quarterback for the first five games and a young wide receiver corps starting without its top two targets from a season ago, the contributions of the Buckeye tight ends and backs in the passing game should be critical.

And that will start with Stoneburner, who in addition to lining up in the I-formation and blowing people off the ball this spring also split out into the slot and caught passes.

"I think they're really going to have to count on me being able to do that," he said. "With DeVier (Posey) being gone and not a lot of proven guys at the wide receiver position, they're going to have to ask me to do a little bit more."

The junior from Dublin (Ohio) Coffman is fine with that, too. Stoneburner came to Ohio State listed as a four-star tight end in the class of 2008 as Scout.com projected how he would fill out in college, but he played wideout for the Shamrocks and made 168 catches during his prep career.

He started as a wideout at OSU, too, during his redshirt year before switching by the time spring ball came around in 2009. Stoneburner finally, by his own admission, became comfortable at tight end a season ago.

The past two years, he's lined up almost exclusively on end of the line, but this spring he showed he can still split out and get it – especially when he tipped a pass to himself in the spring game that led to a key first down on a scoring drive led by Braxton Miller.

"I'm excited just being able to make plays, being able to be out in open space, catching the ball and see what I can do with it," he said. "That's what I did in high school and that's what I wanted to do when I got here. For them being able to ask me to do that and work in space and work the middle of the field and catch the ball, that's something I've always wanted to do and I feel I can excel at that."

Stoneburner did it to the point last year where he caught 21 passes for 222 yards and two touchdowns, the most catches for a Buckeye tight end since Ben Hartsock hauled in 33 passes for 290 yards and two scores in 2003. He also missed two games and was limited in others by an ankle injury.

Healthy and utilized more, Stoneburner could be in line for even more of a breakout campaign, especially with inexperienced quarterbacks looking for more safety valves.

"Actually I feel like that's a good position for him because Stoneburner, to me, he's not an ordinary tight end," cornerback Travis Howard said. "He's a guy who can get out and line up and wide receiver and create mismatches against linebackers."

While Stoneburner was fighting injury last year, Fragel stepped up during his sophomore campaign and showed he had the potential to be a field stretcher in addition to a solid run-blocker on the edge. Fragel caught nine passes including a 42-yarder that was one of the big plays of OSU's Sugar Bowl win vs. Arkansas.

True freshman Jeff Heuerman also showed off his hands in the spring game, as the early enrollee tied for game-high honors with three catches as a short option.

Then there's Ohio State's plethora of running backs, who were also a major part of the passing game during the spring and even last season. Swing passes were a focus of one practice session while reporters also saw screens and the occasional rusher split wide.

Often, that was Jordan Hall, who has been rumored to be moving to a part-time slot role in seasons past. The junior caught eight passes last year and hauled in two more during the spring game, the same number as fellow back Jaamal Berry, who was spotted running a more downfield route during an April 16 scrimmage.

"Definitely this spring I think there's more chances for me in space where I can make more plays," he said of playing in the slot more often. "I think that's a mismatch for the linebackers."

Dan Herron added 19 catches a year ago while fullback Zach Boren had 10 and tailbacks Roderick Smith and Carlos Hyde were part of swing pass drills this spring.

Adding in Brandon Saine's 23 catches – some of which came when he was more of a wideout – tight ends and backs caught 96 passes last year, an average of 7.4 per game. That number could go up even more in 2011.

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