A simple question about the physical condition of Ohio State
tight end Jake Ballard
led to another that seems to have dogged the senior since he arrived on campus.
"I'm a little bit leaner," he said when asked by the local media on Thursday about how his body felt. "I dropped probably about 10 pounds since Arizona. I feel like I'm more athletic and running faster and running better routes."
Faster, better routes, Jake? Why would that be? Any chance you're going to see a few more passes coming your way in 2009?
"We block first, catch second," he said, an oft-repeated mantra at OSU. "But I think the tight ends will show you a little bit of something you haven't seen the past couple of years."
One thing that's for sure is that the tight end spot has not been a primary target during the past few seasons at Ohio State.
Last year, Ballard and senior Rory Nicol combined to make just 11 catches, two of which were touchdowns. The year before, the two combined for 29 grabs and two scores. In 2006, the pair had 15 catches but four touchdowns.
In comparison, Rice tight end James Casey led Division I-A last season in grabs for a tight end with 111 along with 1,329 yards and 13 scores. Missouri's Chase Coffman, a first-team All-American, had 90 catches and Jermaine Gresham, who helped Oklahoma to the national title game, had 14 touchdowns.
Players like the latter two, who received plenty of press while suiting up for top-25 teams that boasted prolific offenses, have shown how dynamic tight ends can make a difference when it comes to trying to build an offensive machine.
At Ohio State, tight ends coach John Peterson has heard the questions for years, and he has a case for being able to see his charges come up with a few more balls. The 2009 Buckeyes will boast two sophomore quarterbacks in starter Terrelle Pryor and top reserve Joe Bauserman, and Peterson said that the men at his position can help ease their transition into the offense.
"What we call a dump off or a leak or anybody's that's closer for a short throw, those are always confidence builders, comfort throws that quarterbacks can some completions," he said. "A lot of teams that have high competition rates typically throw underneath."
But offensive assistant Nick Siciliano, who works with the quarterbacks, said that forcing balls to the weapons at the position will not be something he tries to impress upon his youngsters.
"We always talk to them about taking the checkdowns, which are your backs and your tight ends, but you can't tell them, ‘Hey, you need to throw the ball to the tight ends because we called this route,' " Siciliano said. "It's going to vary by protection and coverage and blitz and whatever else dictates where the ball goes.
"The safest route is the guy that's open."
What the dearth of passes to the tight ends over the past few years might come down to is personnel – and not just at the tight end position.
In 2006, Troy Smith was known as a fantastic distributor of the ball, but most of his passes went to eventual first-round draft picks Ted Ginn Jr. and Anthony Gonzalez as well as soon-to-be 2009 draftees Brian Robiskie and Brian Hartline.
Todd Boeckman took over for Smith in 2007 and never quite seemed to be on the same page with the OSU tight ends when it came to the passing game. Pryor simply didn't throw the same number of balls and often didn't seem to look toward the tight ends, the most famous example Nicol's unmolested run down the seam against Penn State that went for naught.
At the same time, Nicol and Ballard were similar players, each checking in around 6-6, 250 pounds and sporting good hands without breakaway speed.
This season, the Buckeyes have some options at the tight end spot, starting with Ballard, who has shown a knack for making timely catches including a one-handed snag against Texas in the Fiesta Bowl.
"I feel like I have pretty good hands," he said. "I'm a pretty reliable receiver. I just need to maybe make some better plays."
Then there's converted wideout Jacob Stoneburner, whose high school exploits as a pass catcher are well-known. He entered OSU as a wideout but a rapidly developing body that now tips the scales upwards of 240 pounds made a move to tight end necessary.
His body type and skill set remind some of a player like Gresham or former Miami tight end Kellen Winslow, and his presence has shown that maybe the Buckeyes are serious about throwing more balls to the big men
"I think that shows the tight end group that we're trying to get the tight end more involved in the receiving aspect of things," Ballard said.
So far in practice, Stoneburner has made a number of grabs, including one out of a flex position in Thursday's practice.
"It helps a lot, that ability to have personnel that has a heavy run threat yet you can walk them out and all of a sudden it's a different formation, a different threat," Peterson said of the flex option. "If they blink you have a fast big guy that can go down the middle. It keeps those safeties back a little bit."
Also in the mix is redshirt freshman Nic DiLillo, who is working with the third team and is someone Ballard pointed to as another potential weapon at the position.
Fans have wondered for years why the Ohio State football team doesn't involve tight ends in the passing game the way other schools have, but with a different cast of characters at tight end and at quarterback, things could be different in 2009. The Buckeyes are looking at some ways to get the position involved, including the offseason move of Jake Stoneburner to the spot.
New blood at position, new quarterbacks could get position more chances for receptions.
Jake Ballard showing off his hands.