COLUMBUS — Ohio State knew the transformation would take time.
But it was really going to be up to Jeremy Ruckert to determine just how long it would take.
So, the nation’s top-rated recruit at his position went straight to work trying to eventually become the best tight end in the country. And the way he combined a relentless work ethic with undeniable athleticism has never gone unnoticed by the Buckeyes.
“The thing that struck me right away [about Ruckert] is his drive to do anything he could to get better,” former Ohio State tight end Luke Farrell told Lettermen Row. “He was in there, it seemed like every day, doing extra work from the second he got on campus just to learn the offense and get that preliminary development in his blocking game.
“I think he made a huge jump from his freshman to sophomore year. Then since he turned that corner, he’s been great ever since then.”
Ruckert has become a complete tight end, and his return for another season has him both in line to fulfill the individual projections for his career while also raising the ceiling for the Buckeyes.
But the senior can’t do it by himself for a unit that has increasingly relied on multiple tight ends to fuel the attack. Heading into spring camp, Ohio State is going to need to develop some sidekicks for Ruckert, and Lettermen Row is taking a closer look at how the program will manage that in the latest Spring Forecast.
The Stakes: Buckeyes have to replace NFL-caliber tight end
Ohio State has a surefire NFL tight end coming back, which is always a great place to start a reloading project. But the loss of Luke Farrell to the professional ranks is why there is important work to be done in spring, and that’s a significant void that must be filled. Don’t be fooled by the relatively modest reception totals for Farrell: The multiyear starter was a critical, invaluable piece of the arsenal for the Buckeyes — particularly as a blocker.
The use of two-tight end sets has ticked up over the last few years thanks to the versatility guys like Farrell and Ruckert provide. And it also doesn’t hurt that offensive coordinator and tight ends coach Kevin Wilson has a longstanding affinity for the position and has cooked up creative ways to use it along with Ryan Day as those two have built one of the most consistently explosive offenses in the country. The Buckeyes can be flexible, of course, but finding a guy or two who can be as reliable as Farrell to pair with Ruckert is one of the most important under-the-radar storylines in camp.
The Candidates: Ohio State bringing along young depth
Jeremy Ruckert has already proven that he can do everything the Buckeyes want at tight end, and there’s no doubt he should be preparing for a heavy workload in his final season with the program. But his most important job in the offseason and during spring practice might be setting an example and helping bring along the next wave of tight ends — starting with Cade Stover and Joe Royer.
Stover is one of the most tantalizing athletes on the roster, and he could line up just about anywhere after initially playing linebacker when he arrived on campus. His high-school background at tailback shows he has the ball skills, vision and mobility to be a threat on offense, and his hard-hitting aggression on defense suggests that blocking will be no problem at all for him. The emergence of Stover would be a massive deal for the Buckeyes, just as it would be with Royer if he can make the same transformation Ruckert had to early in his career when he was primarily just a bigger-bodied receiving threat. Early enrollee Sam Hart has the physical tools the Buckeyes want at tight end, but it’s probably too soon for him to really become a factor in that role. The spotlight will stay on Stover and Royer.
The Forecast: Cade Stover emerges alongside Jeremy Ruckert
There is no question who is leading the unit, obviously. And there really aren’t many other options to pick from when projecting the next in line.
So, Jeremy Ruckert will be the headliner, and the focus from there becomes determining just how much the Buckeyes can rely on from Cade Stover. Last year certainly didn’t provide the kind of developmental opportunities Ohio State wanted or that Stover needed, but he was flashing early in spring camp before it was cancelled due to COVID after one week. With a full allotment of practices starting in two weeks and a more normal year to grow, Stover has the potential to bring major upside to the unit for the Buckeyes.