When Ohio State tight end Jeremy Ruckert announced last month that he was returning for his senior season, he not only provided the Buckeyes with another talented offensive option, but he also kept the 2021 tight end room from being completely gutted.
The Buckeyes said goodbye to fifth-year tight ends Luke Farrell and Jake Hausmann after the 2020 season, and had they also had to bid adieu to Ruckert, it would have left the Buckeyes with almost no experience at the position.
Instead, Ohio State now has an exclamation point at a position that could have been a huge question mark.
Ruckert caught 13 passes for 151 yards and five touchdowns last season in eight games. Over the course of a full season, he would have far exceeded his 14 catches for 142 yards and four touchdowns from 2019.
Coming back now as a senior and with nobody established like Luke Farrell to split time with, this could be a very big season for the Buckeye tight end.
“Ruck coming back is really important,” head coach Ryan Day said. “I think his best football is ahead of him. With a whole offseason and all those things, he can really make plays for us and be a weapon.”
Part of making that happen will simply require the offense to feature him and for the quarterback to look for him. Ruckert went three weeks without catching a pass last season, which seems like a waste even when you consider the talent Ohio State had at wide receiver.
As it stands, Ruckert’s return helps the top line, which is great, but the team will need more than just him at the position.
The most experienced returner next to Ruckert is walk-on Mitch Rossi, who is as much a fullback as a tight end. Former linebacker and defensive end Cade Stover spent his redshirt freshman season as a tight end last year and will no doubt be better this year than he was in 2020. Will it be good enough? Joe Royer was a true freshman in 2020 but saw no action. The Buckeyes also add incoming freshman Sam Hart this year.
The numbers are solid, but tight ends coach/offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson will need to find more guys to rely on than just Ruckert.
“You have to really create some depth in that tight end room going into the next fall,” Day said. “I think we’ve done a good job, Kevin’s done a good job of developing that room, but now those guys have got to step up replacing Jake and Luke going into next fall.”
Over the last two years, the Ohio State offense played a lot of two tight end sets. In football parlance, that’s known as “12 personnel,” with the first number being how many running backs are in the play and the second number being the tight ends.
And any time an offense is in 12 personnel, that means only two wide receivers are on the field. In the recent past, the Buckeye coaches have felt better about the 12 personnel at times than they have the overall receiver depth. Instead of rotating a second slot receiver consistently the last two seasons like the Buckeyes did with KJ Hill and Parris Campbell in 2017 and 2018, many of those snaps went to a second tight end.
Coming into the 2021 season, however, that second tight end isn’t nearly as proven as he was the previous two years. And the depth at wide receiver has only gotten better.
So as the tight end depth chart begins to shake out, so to will the overall picture on just how many tight ends will be playing behind Jeremy Ruckert this season.
“I think one of the things you do when you compete, you’re competing for a spot, but you’re also competing in personnel groupings,” Day explained. “And we felt like Luke and Ruck deserved to be on the field. That’s why we were in a lot of 12 last year. So getting into the spring, are we going to be in more 11 or are we going to be in more 12? Maybe some 20 personnel, I don’t know. It’s all kind of based on how the guys compete for the spots who deserves to be on the field.”
This will be the start of an interesting spring because the expectations for Ruckert will be as high as they’ve been for any Buckeye tight end previously, but all around him there may be more questions about the tight ends than any time in the recent past.
Fortunately for Ohio State, the biggest question is answered. The rest can be figured out along the way.