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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Urban Meyer knows a thing or two about the tight end position. After all, it was just four years ago that he coached the nation's top player at the position in Aaron Hernandez, who won the John Mackey Award under Meyer at Florida in 2009.
Given the three seasons that he spent with Hernandez while coaching the Gators, one wouldn't blame the second-year Ohio State head coach for having high expectations of his tight ends on a yearly basis. That, however, should be welcome news for Buckeye fans in 2013.
Appearing on ESPN's SportsCenter last week, Meyer had high praise for OSU tight ends Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett, who return as the Buckeyes top two players at the position this fall.
"The tight end area is the best I've had," Meyer said. "I have two legitimate guys that are very good blockers, very good receivers in Nick Vannett and Jeff Heuerman, so we're going to utilize all of our personnel."
While his words weren't as strong, Meyer also praised the production of his tight ends last offseason, but it never translated to sustained success in the fall. During OSU's run to an undefeated record, Heuerman and Vannett combined for 17 catches, 217 yards, and one touchdown, although it should be noted that Jake Stoneburner also saw time playing the position.
With Stoneburner's eligibility having expired, the burden placed on Heuerman and Vannett's shoulders has only grown, but according to Buckeyes tight ends coach Tim Hinton, both players proved themselves as more than capable of helping carry OSU's offensive load.
"They're really complete tight ends. They really have the ability to come back and be able to line up and block you off the ball from the point of attack. They've got the ability to block in space, they've got the ability to catch the ball in traffic, and they were able to show the ability to get down the field and catch some long balls," Hinton said. "Being a very versatile guy, being able to use them in every way, never taking having to take them off the field for certain X's and O's is a valuable part of being a tight end for us."
Now in his second offseason under Meyer, Heuerman said that the main difference this year has been having a full year of experience in Meyer's spread offense under his belt. Rather than just learning the plays in the playbook, the Naples, Fla. native feels as though he's making the most of the opportunities that they present him with.
"Everyone understands everything a lot better. You know, the route concepts, what you're supposed to do, the coverages, what you do against different coverages," Heuerman said. "Last year, we were just trying to line up and get in the right formation. And this year, I think we're able to execute a lot more rather than trying to figure out what we're even supposed to do."
On top of that, Hinton's been pleased with the big play-capability that his two co-starters showed through the Buckeyes' 15 spring practice sessions. While neither player stood out in the spring game -- Heuerman caught one pass for six yards and Vannett missed the exhibition with a concussion -- their position coach believes that they'll each be dynamic weapons in what is expected to be a fast paced OSU offense this fall.
"The one thing they did in the spring is we were able to have some explosive plays with them," Hinton said. "They were always really, really good underneath, but what they learned to do throughout the spring is, you know, tight ends are never really going to outrun you, but when you get those tight ends matched up on defensive backs in space, their job is to maneuver their body, put their body between the ball and the defensive back. They really did a great job of figuring that out."
Whether or Heuerman and Vannett can live up to their head coach's lofty expectations remains to be seen. All signs point to the tight end position finally emerging as a regular part of the Ohio State offense, but when asked how many catches he thinks are available for him to make this season, Heuerman declined to give an answer.
"I have no idea. There's a lot of things that could go into that," Heuerman said. "I just try to go out do my job and do what the coaches tell me and keep my mouth shut and go from there."
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