Tight ends Jeremy Ruckert and Luke Farrell combined to catch 21 passes for six touchdowns in 2019, and the goal is for them to have a lot more success downfield in 2020.
Columbus – Co-offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson would pour over hundreds and hundreds of plays on videotape of Ohio State’s tight ends from last season, and afterward felt pretty good about what he had seen.
The group, particularly Jeremy Ruckert and Luke Farrell, held up their end in the blocking game and combined to catch 21 balls for 261 yards and six touchdowns. That’s pretty good for a team that is so wideout-heavy in the passing game.
Then Wilson dug out video of the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers and told the men in the tight end group that, right there, that’s what we want to see from you in 2020.
Few NFL teams throw the football more to their tight ends than those two, and Wilson told his guys why they are so proficient.
The Ravens and 49ers tight ends play fast – really fast. So the coaches went to work to copy what those players were doing.
“They are playing faster. That was our goal,’’ Wilson said after the second practice of spring ball before everything was cancelled because of the coronavirus threat. “When I watched us play last year, I thought we played well but not as fast as they are (capable of playing). We wanted to feel speed and size. I think if they play fast that you will see the ball in their hands.’’
Ruckert got excited hearing that maybe, just maybe, quarterback Justin Fields will look for the tight ends earlier in his progressions if they speed it up.
“As we study we watch a lot of 49ers and Ravens – teams in the NFL that use their tight ends a lot – and in the NFL the biggest play they always convert is the tight end over the middle,’’ he said. “You see the versatility with those teams. You watch the speed they play with.’’
This will be the second season for Fields as a starter, and coach Ryan Day said the staff plans to go even deeper into the playbook because of that experience.
Ruckert has seen the improvement in Fields since the loss to Clemson in a national semifinal in January.
“I definitely see it,’’ he said. “He has been spot-on from Day 1 (in spring ball) and you could see it on Day 2. You can see that he’s different in his mindset. Every throw that he’s making is (with a purpose). He doesn’t force balls. You know that if he’s coming to you that you won’t get killed (by a defender) or that you are open. That helps us with yards after the catch. He puts the ball away from the defender. We know our offense is open and that Justin trusts us.’’
Ruckert, a rising junior, started in five games. Day started slot receiver KJ Hill the other nine games.
Ruckert caught four passes for 38 yards and two touchdowns in the opener against Florida Atlantic, but didn’t catch more than two in a game the rest of the way. His shining moment was a six -yard, one-handed touchdown catch in the Big Ten title game against Wisconsin.
In order to play faster, Ruckert knows what he must do.
“I think the main thing I’m looking at is understanding defenses and coverages (even more) and fronts and all that,’’ he said. “I know the offense this being my third year. I’m starting to get the techniques down. This year, I want to take a step forward in ID-ing the defense and understanding the play and even during the play.’’
The tight ends room will change slightly. Redshirt freshman Cade Stover has moved from outside linebacker and Cormontae Hamilton has switched to defensive line.
Defensive line coach Larry Johnson wanted to make the move during last season, but Wilson talked him out of it. Hamilton had a nagging hamstring injury and was a long way from his Memphis home.
Day stressed that the players made the final decision.
Hamilton, Wilson said, was dieting hard just to keep his weight at 268 pounds. That’s immense for tight end.
Stover was Ohio’s Mr. Football in 2018 as a senior at Lexington High School south of Mansfield. He ran for 1,497 yards as a running back, but also played quarterback. He made 175 tackles playing safety.
Ohio State thought he was a must-have recruit. He was ranked the No. 4 overall prospect in the state and 130th nationally.
It will take time for Stover to feel comfortable.
“You worry like all the guys that the plays get in the way of the athlete that you are, and when we went through some stuff in the winter sometimes he looked like a fish out of water,’’ Wilson said. “You’d like to see a little bit smoother and fluid.
“When we get out there running around he naturally finds the right place. He might look a little out of control or out of whack because he’s doing it on the run, but you know he’s a good football player. I think it’s going to be a good move for him and a good move for us.’’
Wilson wasn’t joking when he said defensive coaches did not want him to be in on Stover’s recruitment. He wasn’t permitted to watch him play basketball, and it was a big senior season when he led the Minutemen to the Division III state tournament.
Stover, who left the high school as its all-time leading scorer in basketball, is confident that he can become a factor.
“I feel like I have a chance to be special with the ball in space and going up against smaller guys and catching the ball, and also of course helping with the blocking game,” he said. “Whatever I can do to help the team this year, that’s what I’m going to do.”
But let’s get back to the lead of this story. Will Ohio State tight ends catch more footballs?
“They are playing faster. That was our goal,’’ Wilson said. “We wanted to feel speed and size. I think if they play fast that you will see the ball in their hands.’’
But Wilson put things into perspective: Buckeyes tight ends block a lot more than they run pass routes.
“If they caught five balls a game, this past year that means they would have caught 70 balls,’’ he said. “But now Luke had 460-some plays. So what is he doing the other 399 snaps? It’s the same thing with Ruckert. He had 412 or 416 plays. They still have to be great players without the ball.’’