Could this be the year the wraps come off the Ohio State tight ends?
Through six years of the Jim Tressel regime, tight ends have caught more than a combined 25 passes just once, the same total of instances the group broke the 300-yards receiving mark.
By comparison, Hamby's numbers alone eclipse what Buckeye tight ends contributed as a group last year: 15 catches for 156 yards and four touchdowns. But as meager as 2006 was, the scraps left for Rory Nicol, Jake Ballard and Brandon Smith closely resembled those thrown their predecessors in 2005 (21 catches, 185 yards, no scores) and '04 (19-212-2).
While it remains to be seen if the numbers in the passing game grow with the experience of Nicol, Ballard and Smith, there is little doubt they will be an integral part of the offense as a whole after the offseason departure of the team's leading passer (quarterback Troy Smith) and top three producers of all-purpose yards (respectively Ted Ginn Jr., Antonio Pittman and Anthony Gonzalez).
"Oh, a much bigger factor," OSU offensive coordinator Jim Bollman said. "When you lose some of the people that we've lost then it gives some people some other opportunities to step up. Those guys have that opportunity and they're showing that. They're doing a good job working at it. They want to earn the right to get the ball thrown to them a little bit more."
There is more to being an Ohio State tight end than catching passes, however. In fact, one might argue that is not the number one job at all.
For his part, Nicol declined to name any one specific duty that rises above the others.
"It's a unique position, I've always felt," he said. "You catch some balls and you block defensive ends. That's the thing that you've got to accept. We're not really an offense that's just gonna run our tight ends out on routes and not be expected to dominate on the edge (run blocking)."
The Buckeyes opened last season with no proven options at tight end, but that is far from the case this season. Entering his sophomore year of eligibility, Nicol earned the No. 1 spot in the 2006 preseason camp and posted a nice year both blocking and as the occasional change of pace in the passing game.
He caught 13 passes for 151 yards and a trio of touchdowns.
By the end of the season, he had a partner in crime in Ballard, then a true freshman.
Ballard caught just two passes for five yards and a touchdown, but he was seen on the field more as the Buckeyes opted for more sets with two tight ends as the weather turned colder in the Midwest. After playing just 15 minutes in the first six games, Ballard saw 51 minutes in the final seven.
This year the two enter the season essentially as co-starters.
"They're both very interchangeable," tight ends coach John Peterson said. "As long as those guys keep competing they'll both get a lot of playing time."
Though he is younger, Ballard has a slight size advantage as he stands 6-7 and weights 255 pounds. Nicol is listed at 6-5, 250.
"With those two guys, it gives you different thoughts as an offensive coach about having some more two-tight end formations, two tight ends and one wideout, two tight ends and two wideouts – different things that we haven't done as much the last couple of years when we've had all those wideouts that we've had," Bollman said. "They're doing a good job showing that they're willing and ready to do that and that we should think about doing that."
While one would expect Nicol and Ballard would be visibly excited about getting more opportunities to show their stuff, both expressed a willingness to execute the gameplan however it gets laid out this season.
"I remember last year someone would ask me why the tight ends don't get the ball more, and it's really to me like until you stop our offense, why change it?" Nicol said. "Now we're in a new situation with new people so our scheme is going to change some. We lost guys on the outside. We lost guys in the backfield. We lost some guys up front, and things will change and until we really get out there and play a game we're not going to know how it's going to be."
At any rate, the tight end position at Ohio State in 2007 will not be just a two-man band.
Back for his junior season is Brandon Smith, a 6-3, 253-pounder from Euclid who saw a total of 27 minutes in nine games last season. Though he was shut out last season, Smith caught five passes for 30 yards in limited action in 2005 when injuries depleted the position.
"Brandon has the ability to go vertical," Peterson said. "He doesn't have the range as a blocker that (Nicol and Ballard) do with the height and the length and the body. He doesn't quite have that range, but he's a tenacious competitor and has been around the system and knows it."
Finally, redshirt freshman Andy Miller rounds out the group. Though rumors have persisted since before his arrival on campus that the 6-6, 260-pounder would be converted into an offensive lineman, Peterson refuted them.
"He's still a tight end and growing as a football player," Peterson said. "The way he approaches and learns the game is from a very analytical perspective in a positive way. He wants to be perfect and is very self-conscious when he makes a mistake. He doesn't want to make a mistake, so he's learning just to play and know that you're going to make a mistake on every play. Learning that's just part of the game and you need to go on to that next play."