Tight Ends Needed In Passing Game

It has become an annual tradition for Jake Stoneburner during fall camp — answering questions about whether he thinks he'll catch the ball more in the upcoming season. This year, however, he has a big reason to continue to be optimistic.

The Ohio State coaching staff has enjoyed the option of having tight end Jake Stoneburner as a receiving option during the course of the past two seasons. Whether they used him to his full potential could certainly be debated.

Perhaps that's why Stoneburner is approached with the same question each year weeks before Ohio State's season kicks off — will he be featured more in the team's passing attack?

"I think I get that question every year, but I think so. I don't see why not," Stoneburner responded to the question that has now become an annual tradition . "We've had a pretty good camp. We're catching the ball pretty well. It looks like we will as long as we keep on progressing. I think we'll be included in the offense."

Though Stoneburner has yet to have a season in which he's featured like former tight end Ben Hartsock was in 2003 — he caught 33 passes — the junior has somehow been able to maintain a positive outlook on what this future may hold.

Like he does every fall camp, Stoneburner has cited an increase in receptions during practice as a way to remain optimistic that he'll finally return to the wide receiver role he played while in high school at local Dublin Coffman.

This season, however, he may have more reason than ever to expect the ball. Because unlike any other year, Ohio State can't quite look at him as a receiving option — he's a necessity.

A lack of experience and proven playmaking ability in a youthful receiving corps is one of the concerns of this year's Buckeye offense. Couple that with the emergence of a new starting quarterback, and check-downs to the tight end may be commonly used to move the football.

"These guys understand that the balls will come to them as the offense evolves," tight ends coach John Peterson said. "I think these guys have proven they can impact the offense in a lot of different ways. Jake Stoneburner has done an outstanding job of training from his route running and all those things."

Because Ohio State's strengths are at running back, the offense will be widely regarded as a team with a run-first mentality.

In doing so, there could be more double-tight formations, obviously getting more playing time for Stoneburner and Reid Fragel, not to mention the potential utilization of freshmen Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett.

Stoneburner said he has split out wide more this fall than he has during any point of his Buckeye career.

"I love it. That's what I grew up doing," Stoneburner said, who now stands 6-5, 245 pounds. "A lot of camp I've been split out. It's something I feel natural doing and I've been doing it for a while, so I think they have the confidence in me doing it. I think we'll keep on going with it."

Though Stoneburner is the one who seems most likely to be a passing threat, the Buckeyes boast an incredibly deep tight end group this season, starting with the emergence last year of Fragel.

With immense size at 6-8, 245 pounds, Fragel has always been seen as a block-first option. However, Fragel caught nine passes a year ago for 121 and a touchdown. His 42-yard reception in the Sugar Bowl highlighted his potential, as the play showed an ability to catch and move after making the grab.

Then there's Heuerman (6-5, 240) and Vannett (6-6, 235) who come in as highly touted recruits. Though it isn't likely both will play this season, both have had impressive flashes during fall camp in a short amount of time.

Heuerman specifically stole the show since enrolling in January and boasts a body that resembles someone who has been a part of the program for multiple seasons. He caught a 5-yard touchdown reception in the team's jersey scrimmage Saturday.

Though the numbers for the tight ends don't necessarily jump off the page when analyzing how many passes the position group has caught — in eight of the last 10 years they've had between six and 17 receptions — Peterson thinks statistics could be deceiving.

"What is a good number for a tight end to catch? Is it eight balls a game?" Peterson asked. "There may be 70 snaps in a game. You better be good at doing something else, too. These guys understand that the value of a tight end isn't based (solely) on a catch."

Peterson will surely gauge his position group by far more than how many catches come back in the box score, but Stoneburner believes he's a big threat when lined up against opposing linebackers.

The unit as a whole may not get recognition without the ball in their hands, but the deep group fully intends on being a large part of the offense in 2011.

"We like to think we're one of the best in the country," Stoneburner said. "Me and Reid, we've been on the field and made some plays. And both the freshmen coming in are unbelievable athletes."

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