Jelani Thurman plans to redefine Ohio State football's tight end room, win Mackey Award

Colin Gay
The Columbus Dispatch

Jelani Thurman already has his sights set on Ohio State history

When he announced he was joining the Buckeyes’ 2023 recruiting class, he said he plans to do something no Buckeyes tight end has done. 

“I want to win a Mackey Award, be a Mackey Award winner,” Thurman said. “Just me being competitive, I just want to be the best at my position. But also, I want to be the best on the field. And me being the best on the field, you can’t deny me being the best player at the position.” 

The 6-foot-6 Thurman has always been a mismatch, something that put him on Ohio State’s radar in the first place, bringing him in as one of two tight ends in the 2023 class along with four-star Ty Lockwood out of Thompson’s Station, Tennessee. 

It’s a position that’s in need of a boost, coming off a season in which senior Jeremy Ruckert made 26 catches for 309 receiving yards – one of the best statistical seasons an Ohio State tight end has had since Jeff Heuerman in 2013, but which still looked minuscule compared to the numbers put up by wide receivers Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave

Thurman doesn't feel he'll be limited as a tight end in Ohio State’s offense because he plans to redefine the role.

How Jelani Thurman developed into a mismatch 

Langston Hughes coach Daniel Williams watched opposing defenses try to game plan against Thurman. 

“We’ve seen everything,” Williams said. “We’ve seen man with a backer, man with a safety, double him try and coverage him. We’ve seen every possible defense for him.” 

Still, Williams had 31 catches for 479 yards and seven touchdowns during his junior season. He also recorded 61 tackles, five quarterback hurries and a sack at defensive end. 

“Obviously I’m big, so I can block anybody I want to," Thurman said. "Langston, they put me in the weight room to get me stronger. Me being as big as I am, if you put a linebacker on me, I can run past them and do whatever I need to do. If you put a corner on me or a smaller guy, I’m just going to take them to the sideline with my blocking ability, and we’re going to run it down.” 

Much of that athleticism comes from Thurman’s experience playing basketball.

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He said his time on the hardwood helps him attack the football at the highest point, jumping over opponents as if he were trying to grab a rebound. 

“Basketball, you get it high, keep it high, and that’s another thing that helps him in football,” Williams said. “He plays 6-6, but he goes up to get it, he’s over 7-5. Not many guys can jump that high.” 

Jelani Thurman wants to bring that mismatch mentality to Ohio State

Thurman wants to make it to the NFL, to follow in the footsteps of his father Odell Thurman, a former All-Southeastern Conference linebacker at Georgia who played one season for the Cincinnati Bengals

His coach believes Ohio State can help make that happen, hearing from offensive coordinator and tight ends coach Kevin Wilson that the Buckeyes don't have Thurman's combination of blocking and receiving skills. 

“It was the best situation to get him to where he wanted to go,” Williams said. 

Thurman gave Ohio State a chance, going on an official visit June 24, and he was sold, calling Wilson and head coach Ryan Day July 14 to tell them they they could add another tight end to the roster. 

“For real, they seemed a little more excited than me. They were so happy,” Thurman said. “They said, ‘Glad to finally have you in the family. Try to put this work in when you get here.’”

The 2023 tight end is already preparing for the next level  

Williams couldn’t help but be emotional as Thurman put on that Ohio State hat at his commitment ceremony. 

“You got a guy going to a perennial national champion team,” Williams said. “Year in and year out, top recruiting class in the country, one of the biggest recruits in school history. It meant a lot.” 

And Williams is excited to see Thurman at the next level.

“It will be easy for him because he has a way of grasping what’s needed,” Williams said. “It doesn’t take him a long time to buy in and learn what to do from the older guys. And once he gets it, he applies his spin on it and he does it very well.” 

Thurman is excited himself. He plans to enroll at OSU in January and show Ohio State fans that he's a “big guy smiling and making plays.” 

“I’ve always been a leader, so that really doesn’t put a lot of pressure on me,” he said. It’s just me bringing it to the next level. This being a young group with a lot of talent, I’m very happy because I know we’re going to come up there and make a big difference (and) hopefully win a national championship.” 


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