At Ohio State, the role of what he calls the "heart and soul" of the Buckeyes is not one that Urban Meyer takes lightly.
Two years ago, it was defensive end John Simon. Last season, it was left tackle Jack Mewhort. Type A personalities propped up in the preseason by the Ohio State head coach looking for leaders.
Asked at Big Ten media days who this year's version would be, Meyer didn't point to the star quarterback or veteran defensive lineman that he brought with him to Chicago. Rather, Meyer opted to anoint the nontraditional tight end who was hardly tailor-made for his spread offense.
"Jeff Heuerman is a guy who's got that kind of work ethic and leadership," Meyer said.
Given that the tight end position has hardly been highlighted and isn't even on the field for every offensive play for Ohio State, it's hard to imagine one being the "heart and soul" of the Buckeyes. But with Heuerman's ability—as well as fellow tight end Nick Vannett's—Meyer said that it's safe to throw away any preconceived notions about where OSU's leadership will come from.
"He will be (on the field for every offensive play)," Meyer insisted of Heuerman. "I have two legitimate pieces to the puzzle I've never had. You're going to see some two-tight end offense."
Just as dual tight ends aren't traditional in Meyer's spread offense, how Heuerman got here isn't your standard story, either. In fact, it was just three years ago that the Naples, Florida, native was admittedly unsure whether he had a future in Columbus.
A mere four months after arriving on campus as an early enrollee in January 2011, Heuerman witnessed the man who recruited him to Columbus get fired when Jim Tressel was ousted from Ohio State due to NCAA violations. What followed wasn't pretty, either, as the Buckeyes limped to a 6-7 season, with Heuerman catching one ball for 25 yards in his freshman campaign.
"I remember just like it was yesterday, that Memorial Day when we woke up and found out Coach Tressel resigned," Heuerman recalled. "I was like, 'What are you talking about? He was one of the reasons I came here.'"
But even as the hiring of Meyer in November 2011 breathed some much-needed excitement into the Buckeyes program, Heuerman found himself not sharing the same sentiment. A 3-star tight end in high school, according to 247Sports, Heuerman wasn't recruited by his new head coach despite playing right down the road from him in Florida.
"When he first got here, he didn't know me. He really didn't know me because he didn't recruit me," Heuerman said. "I was like, 'Oh man, here we go. A coach who didn't recruit me is coming in.'
"Everyone's telling me, 'Oh, you'll be like Aaron Hernandez.' We both know I ain't Aaron Hernandez—on and off the field. But you watch Aaron Hernandez highlights, and that's not the way I play football. We're two different body types. Obviously, some doubt crossed my mind."
Only adding to Heuerman's concern was his status on the depth chart, which pegged him as the third-string tight end entering his sophomore season. But when Reid Fragel was converted into an offensive lineman and Jake Stoneburner moved to wide receiver, it was Heuerman who found himself starting for an Ohio State squad that went 12-0 in 2012.
"I woke up one day, and I was the starting tight end at Ohio State," Heuerman recalled. "Jake and Reid were in front of me going into my sophomore year. I wasn't even supposed to play. I was the third-string tight end. And they both moved positions, and one day, I'm like, 'Here we go.' You could say I've come a long way."
Although he was merely an option as a sophomore, the 6'5", 255-pounder grew to be an integral role in the Ohio State offense as a junior, catching 26 balls for 466 yards and four touchdowns in 2013. A workout fiend who possesses the best bench press and highest vertical jump on the Buckeyes roster, Heuerman surely would have catapulted up draft boards following an impressive showing at the NFL Scouting Combine had he decided to forgo his senior season of eligibility.
But after meeting with Meyer—the same coach he was unsure of just two years earlier—mere moments after Ohio State's loss to Clemson in the Orange Bowl, Heuerman decided that he had unfinished business in Columbus.
"I really didn't know until after the bowl game. Coach Meyer and I sat down in some office in the Orange Bowl stadium," Heuerman recalled. "I probably could have left, and everything would have worked out. But we sat down and weighed the options, and I decided to come back. I don't really look back or dwell on the past."
And while classmate and star quarterback Braxton Miller may be the face of the Buckeyes, Heuerman now finds himself the unlikely heart and soul of an Ohio State squad with national championship aspirations and expectations. That's just fine with Heuerman, whose natural leadership has helped him overcome the trials and tribulations that he's already faced in his college career.
"It's special," Heuerman said. "Guys look at you differently. You're a captain now. You're not a young sophomore or junior. You're kind of up there. Guys are always looking at you or what you're doing. But also, it's nice.
"I embrace it. Being a captain at Ohio State's a pretty big deal."
Now, he has a chance to make a John Simon-like impact for the Buckeyes.
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand.
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