Past the star quarterbacks and running backs that Penn State and Ohio State sport heading into their game Saturday at Ohio Stadium, each team has an X factor at the Y position.
In football parlance, Y is the tight end. Call up the Penn State highlights and tight end Mike Gesicki — a player the Buckeyes once coveted — jumps off the screen at key moments. Do the same for Ohio State and it’s obvious tight ends Marcus Baugh and newcomer Rashod Berry have become playmakers downfield.
Now look at the past three College Football Playoff champions and notice each had tight ends that delivered at critical times: Ohio State with Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett in 2014, Alabama with O.J. Howard in ’15 and Clemson with Jordan Leggett in ’16.
It could be argued that’s what is needed to be a truly complete offense in this era, a tight end that helps the running game and the passing game by blocking with the line and taking part in pass protection, not to mention running routes as a credible receiver.
“I’ve said for years that if the tight end plays well in the spread offense, it balances your team,” Ohio State offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said. “Because if you don’t have the tight end, you’re either throwing it too much or you’re running the quarterback too much, because a tight end can handle some of those gaps.
“I really think the great offenses and upper-level teams do both, and I think when you have a true tight end, it makes your offense complete.”
What the 6-foot-6 Gesicki, the 6-5 Baugh and the 6-4 Berry further have in common is having played basketball at a high level in high school. Gesicki was the career scoring leader at Southern Regional in Manahawkin, New Jersey, along with being a standout volleyball player. Berry was a power forward at Lorain, and Baugh had his moments for J.W. North in Riverside, California.
“Having watched Gesicki for years, you can definitely see his ability to high-point (make a leaping catch), the volleyball background he has; Rashod the same way,” Wilson said. “If a kid that has the skill set to play at this level in the programs that are playing Saturday, in high school you’d like to think that kid is good enough that he’s going to play multiple sports.”
What sets them apart in football is their combination of size, speed and athletic ability. It makes them a tough matchup for a linebacker, with their size giving them the advantage over most defensive backs. Gesicki, for example, simply lorded over shorter Michigan defenders last week.
Now it’s Ohio State’s turn to find the right combination to cover him.
“You tell me who is the best matchup — this guy’s (6-6),” Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano said. “So we’ve just got to have different ways to try to get people on him. He’s another wide receiver, really. He’s positionally called a tight end, but he has the skill set of a wide receiver.”
It’s the kind of mismatch Ohio State also has enjoyed with Baugh and Berry.
“In this offense we’re always looking for those” kind of players, coach Urban Meyer said. “There’s not many of them out there, though.”