Everyone over at the Ohio State training camp is busy getting ready for the 2008 season opener, now only 15 days away. (Seems like we were in New Orleans only a couple of weeks ago, but I digress.)
The buzz of camp, of course, is the arrival of freshman quarterbacking whiz Terrelle Pryor, a 6-6, 235-pound version of the second coming. Fans are anxious to see what the OSU coaching staff has cooked up for the talented Pryor, wondering how his talent will mesh with incumbent QB Todd Boeckman, the punishing running style of Beanie Wells and the fluid grace of such receivers as Brian Robiskie and Brian Hartline.
Over the past several years – starting in 2005 when Troy Smith, Ted Ginn Jr., Anthony Gonzalez and Antonio Pittman were coming into their own – the Buckeyes morphed into a more streamlined offensive attack, utilizing team speed to go for an opponent’s jugular. It has made for a ton of excitement – would you rather see a 75-yard touchdown bomb or an 18-play, 80-yard touchdown march? – but it has also signaled a near phasing-out of two positions that helped make Ohio State a traditional college football powerhouse.
As crazy at it may sound, when Dionte Johnson was thrown for a 1-yard loss against Northwestern last season, it marked the first time a Buckeye fullback had recorded a carry since the 2005 season. Likewise, the tight end position isn’t what it once was as the Ohio State coaching staff prefers to use its tight ends as extra blockers in the running game and for maximum protection in the passing attack. Only one OSU tight end has caught more than 20 passes in a season since Jim Tressel took over in 2001 – Ben Hartsock had 33 catches in 2003 – and no tight end has led the Buckeyes in receiving in 20 years.
Nevertheless, the Buckeyes have churned out some top-flight tight ends over the years, and here are my 10 top of all-time.
1. John Frank (1980-83) – Frank is far and away the best pass-catching tight end in the history of the Ohio State program. A three-year starter, he ran precise patterns, had soft hands and could block with the best of them. He led the Buckeyes in receiving in 1983, and finished his career with 121 receptions for 1,421 yards. The catch total ranks eighth on the school’s all-time list.
2. Jan White (1968-70) – White is one of the “Super Sophomores” of 1968 who rarely gets mentioned, but he was every bit as talented as some of his more recognizable teammates. White was a punishing blocker who delighting in blocking down on opposing defensive ends or picking off blitzing outside linebackers. He was also an excellent receiver, tying wideout Bruce Jankowski for the team lead in 1969 and then leading the Buckeyes all by himself in 1970.
3. Jim Houston (1957-59) – Using his rangy frame and blend of power and quickness, Houston was a two-way performer for Woody Hayes in the late Fifties. He earned most of his accolades on defense – he was enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame in 2005 primarily as a defensive end – but Houston was also a prime target when Hayes decided to throw the ball. He tied for the team lead in 1959 with a modest 11 receptions, but he averaged 19.5 yards per catch.
4. Ben Hartsock (2000-03) – Hartsock was one of the unsung heroes of the 2002 national championship run, providing several key blocks and recording important receptions throughout that season. He had only two TD catches that year but made them count – a 20-yarder in the narrow 23-19 win over Cincinnati and a 3-yard fourth-quarter nab that provided for the winning points in a 19-14 win at Wisconsin. The following year, Hartsock became the most prolific pass-catching tight end in the Tressel era to date with 33 receptions for 290 yards and two touchdowns.
5. Fred Pagac (1971-73) – Perhaps you only remember the Pugman as architect of those Silver Bullet defenses in the late 1990s. Before that – way before that – he was a solid tight end for the Buckeyes in the early Seventies. During his senior season in 1973, Ohio State punished opponents with a talented backfield of Cornelius Greene, Archie Griffin, Champ Henson and Brian Baschnagel. But it was Pagac who led the team in receiving – albeit with only nine catches for 159 yards. He was also the guy leading the way downfield when Griffin broke through the line of scrimmage on his way to a then-record 1,577 yards.
6. Rickey Dudley (1994-95) – Lured to Ohio State from Henderson, Texas, on a basketball scholarship, Dudley decided to go out for football in the spring of 1993 and made an immediate impact on the tight end position even though he hadn’t played the sport in nearly five years. His 6-7, 240-pound frame and long, loping strides more than made up for his strange way of catching balls away from his body, and he was one of several weapons on the 1995 squad that scored a school-record 475 points.
7. Ed Taggart (1983-86) – Taggert was a 6-3, 220-pounder out of Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary, a team he had helped lead to back-to-back state championships. Despite his relative lack of size, Taggart became a fixture in the OSU lineup, starting three years at tight end for the Buckeyes in the mid-1980s. He caught as many as 14 passes in one season and also helped block for guys like Keith Byars, John Wooldridge and Vince Workman.
8. D.J. Jones (1992-94, ’96) – Jones was a hard-nosed kid who belied his 6-4, 260-pound frame by making several acrobatic catches during his career. He started at least three games during all four seasons he was a Buckeye, and proved his toughness in 1995. After starting 11 games in ’94, Jones underwent offseason heart surgery and missed the entire ’95 season. The following year, he was back to reclaim his job and started all 12 games for OSU as a senior, recording 10 catches for 139 yards and two touchdowns.
9. Darnell Sanders (1999-2001) – An excellent tight end out of Warrensville Heights, Ohio, Saunders was a two-year starter for the Buckeyes in 2000 and ’01. He played in 36 games with 23 starts during his career, and tallied 42 catches for 474 yards and nine touchdowns. Sanders could have been ranked higher on this list had he stuck around for the 2002 national championship season rather than leaving school early to turn pro.
10. Cedric Saunders (1990-93) – Saunders came to the Buckeyes out of Tallahassee, Fla., and proceeded to become a three-year starter. As a senior, he earned second-team All-Big Ten honors after recording 27 receptions for 290 yards. He finished his career with 68 catches for 853 yards, and caught at least one pass in 22 of the final 25 games he played for the Buckeyes.
Honorable mention – Did you know that Rufus Mayes began his Ohio State career as a tight end? Can you imagine that 6-5, 280-pound freight train coming at you from the tight end position? After two years as the starting tight end, Mayes was switched to an offensive tackle position for the 1968 season and he helped lead the Buckeyes to the national championship. The switch also helped make Mayes a first-round draft pick by Chicago in the 1969 draft, and he played 11 seasons in the NFL, mostly for Cincinnati. Unfortunately, Mayes died in January 1990 at the age of 42 after contracting bacterial meningitis.
If you would to see my all-time top 10 Buckeyes at other positions, here are the links:
Today’s Buckeye birthday belongs, ironically enough, to former tight end D.J. Jones. Born Aug. 15, 1974, in Lebanon, Ohio, Darrell J. Jones was a two-way starter in high school, earning all-state and All-America honors for the Warriors. During his senior year, he caught 22 passes for 306 yards and two touchdowns at tight end, and added 107 tackles on defense at outside linebacker. He was also a legacy Buckeye – both of his parents were Ohio State grads.
Other luminaries celebrating birthdays today: actress Rose Marie (Sally Rogers on “The Dick Van Dyke Show”); actor Mike Connors (“Mannix”); game show host Jim Lange (“The Dating Game”); voice actor Jim Dale (he’s the narrator of “Pushing Daisies”); actress Debra Messing (the Grace half of “Will & Grace”); lawyer and presidential advisor Vernon Jordan; U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.); Pro Football Hall of Fame lineman and NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw; former Minnesota Twins manager Tom Kelly; Grammy-winning composer Jimmy Webb (“Up, Up, and Away,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Wichita Lineman,” “Galveston,” “MacArthur Park”); philanthropist Melinda Gates; actor and Grammy-winning screenwriter Ben Affleck (also Mr. Jennifer Garner); beach volleyball superstar Kerri Walsh; defending Nationwide Series driver Carl Edwards; singer Joe Jonas (one-third of eponymous boy group The Jonas Brothers); and Princess Anne of Great Britain.
Also on this date in 1040, King Duncan I is killed in battle against his first cousin and rival Macbeth, who becomes King of Scotland. Seventeen years later on this same date, Macbeth was killed in the Battle of Lumphanan. What? Did you think Shakespeare made that stuff up?
** I know I’m not the first one to say or think this, but Michael Phelps is a freak of nature and totally entertaining to watch. Now, if the guy just wasn’t from Michigan ….
** If you thought you saw a familiar guy in the dugout for the Chinese baseball team at the Olympics, your eyes weren’t playing tricks on you. Former major league player and manager Jim Lefebvre began developing the Chinese national team five years ago, and has so far sent four players to the Yankees and Mariners organizations.
** Want a little Fantasy Football draft tip? Go after Saints running back Reggie Bush early. He stands to benefit as much as anyone with New Orleans’ acquisition of tight end Jeremy Shockey, who blocks every bit as well as he catches passes.
** You probably know that statue-like Detroit QB Jon Kitna has absorbed the most sacks of any NFL quarterback over the past two seasons. It might surprise you, though, to know who ranks second: Ben Roethlisberger of Pittsburgh. OK, Steelers fans – that didn’t surprise you, did it?
** Despite the apparent acrimony with which Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers severed their relationship, the team still plans to offer their erstwhile quarterback a multimillion-dollar post-retirement package similar to the $20 million deal it offered in July. Seems that Packers management wants everyone to think of Favre only as a Packer – now and forever.
** Expansion of the so-called Big House in Ann Arbor is nearly ready to shut down for the fall. The $226 million renovation product at Michigan Stadium won’t be complete until 2010, but the work completed so far has evidently had an impact on the look of the facility that first opened in 1927. One local woman said the structure now casts such a huge presence that residents have taken to called it “The Shade-ium.”