With so many familiar faces present, calling the activities in the Ohio State tight end room this spring "business as usual" would be easy. Returnees Rory Nicol, Jake Ballard and Brandon Smith are hoping for some changes in 2008, though.
First on the docket? How about more than the 32 catches they amassed as a group in 2007? Nicol surely would not mind.
"I think I averaged four yards a catch last year or something ridiculous like that," he said. "I'd like to become more of a vertical threat. I'm sure Jake would, too.
True enough, Nicol gained just 84 yards on his 16 catches as a junior in 2007. That translates to 5.2 yards per catch, less than half of his average from a season before. In 2006, Nicol led all OSU tight ends with 13 catches, 151 yards and three touchdowns. Three of those catches went for scores and he averaged 11.6 yards per grab.
Ballard, then a sophomore, took over the role of top target among the tight ends last season with 13 catches for 149 yards and a pair of scores. He made just two grabs and gained five yards as a true freshman in 2006.
The stats, though, do not tell the full story of 2007, said Nicol.
"We rotated in the game and it was luck of the draw what was called and he ended up going down the field more than I did," he said. "If you go back to my sophomore year, I was much more of a vertical threat. I'd like to get back to that and be able to consume some of the middle of the field, but it's not on us. The plays have got to be called.
"We do our job to do well in practice and do what they ask us to do and if they call'em they call'em and we've got to make the play."
Though the total catches and yards (263) produced by the tight ends seems paltry, it was more than double the 2006 totals (15 catches for 156) and eclipsed '05 (21, 185, 0) and '04 (19-212-2).
Contributions of the tight ends cannot be measured merely in catches, of course. The trio also did its share in the running game last year as the Buckeyes employed more two-tight end sets in shifting away from the spread offense and three-receiver alignments favored in 2006.
That is where the frames of Nicol (listed 6-5, 252 pounds this spring), Ballard (6-6, 256) and Smith (6-2, 251) come in handy, too.
And just because a pass did not go to a tight end on any given play is not necessarily an indication he was not the best option and others when a tight end might have been overlooked.
"There were certain games they were more efficient," tight ends coach John Peterson said. "That's a combination of what the defense is giving you coverage-wise."
The coach also pointed out that quarterback Todd Boeckman's second year as a starter could be a boon to the tight ends this fall as well.
"I think with the maturity of the quarterback now growing and being able to go from one progression to the next progression … hopefully transcends into the tight ends being impactful in the run game and pass game."
Boeckman joked that upon returning to the huddle everyone tells him he was open on the previous play but acknowledged he could do a better job of spreading the ball around.
"I know there are times I need to get them the ball and some times I should've and some times I didn't," he said. "But I know we've got some great players in Rory Nicol and Jake Ballard and Brandon Smith. I've got to give them balls so they can make some plays."