- Austin Ward, ESPN Staff Writer
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Breaking down the Ohio State roster as training camp heats us and the program turns its attention to the opener on Aug. 31 against Buffalo.
Next in line: Redshirt freshman Blake Thomas turned in a productive spring and could push for action after sitting out last season. Thomas has plenty of size at 6-foot-5, 250 pounds, and he showed a glimpse of big-play potential with a 34-yard reception in the spring game.
New faces: Marcus Baugh gives the Buckeyes another versatile big man capable of throwing hard-hitting blocks while presenting a difficult matchup in coverage, but he’s currently off to a rocky start thanks to an off-the-field incident last month that led to a suspension for what would have been his first game with the program. There is still plenty of optimism about what he can do on the field, but he’ll have work to do to see it much with all the talent ahead of him.
Recruiting trail: Urban Meyer and Tom Herman have both proven they know how to use tight ends to exploit a defense, and neither could ever have too many of them on hand to manipulate opponents. That’s why Heuerman and Vannett are likely to spend a lot of time on the field together, and why the Buckeyes are still chasing four-star recruits even though the cupboard remains well stocked at the position. Tyler Luatua (La Mirada, Calif./La Mirada) is currently at the top of the rankings among players with an offer from Ohio State, one of three ESPN300 tight ends who remain uncommitted and chased by the program.
Flexibility: Given the similarities between Heuerman and Vannett and the packages that will feature both guys at the same time, there isn’t really much need to label one of them the starter and the other a backup. There will be plenty of opportunities for each to make an impact, but it will be interesting to see if Thomas can build on his solid work in March and April and make some appearances in the fall.
-- The Buckeyes hyped the position a year ago and planned on making Jake Stoneburner an integral part of the attack as he took on a hybrid tight end/wide receiver role, but the results were uneven at best. Stoneburner finished with just 16 receptions, though 4 of them went for touchdowns as he finished his career contributing to an unbeaten season.
-- The expectations for production at the position are high again entering the season, as the Buckeyes are once again making it an emphasis to get the tight ends involved in the passing attack. There’s reason to believe it’s not just lip service from Meyer and Herman given their track records, and Vannett and Heuerman are capable of making an impact after combining for 17 catches, 217 yards and a score a year ago.
-- Baugh might have to wait his turn before getting involved much offensively, but he’s got the hands and size to be a reliable option as a target when that chance arrives. Over his last two seasons in high school, the Riverside, Calif., native caught 68 passes for 1,138 yards and scored 10 times.
Big question: How much will the Buckeyes really throw it to the tight ends?
The offense isn’t short on weapons with a loaded backfield, veteran talent blending with talented newcomers at receivers and, of course, Braxton Miller working his magic at quarterback. But even with all those options elsewhere, Meyer has consistently singled out his tight ends for praise and made clear that he has great expectations for Vannett and Heuerman. They can make a mark even without the football in their hands thanks to their strength and willingness to clear the road as physical blockers for the ground game, and neither will complain if that’s all their asked to do. But they can really tax a defense since both are fast enough to run past linebackers and tall enough to have an edge over safeties in coverage, which should make them a tantalizing option for Herman calling the plays and Miller delivering the football.