week month, we looked at Vanderbilt's 2010 starters at quarterback and wide receiver and their likelihood of starting again in 2011. What we found was a strong chance for turnover as young players at both positions are lining up for a chance to unseat some shaky incumbents in Head Coach James Franklin's first season at the helm. Today, we'll look at a more stable position for the Commodores: tight end.
This position has been one of Vanderbilt's brightest spots on offense, even coming off a disappointing 2010 campaign. Brandon Barden's skills at tight end have earned him love from ESPN and the Mackey Award watch list throughout the preseason. In 2011, the depth behind Barden may push the senior star to new heights. A class of athletic freshmen, along with the potential return of oft-injured starter Austin Monahan, give the 'Dores a cache of talent at the position.
However, how Barden will be used under Franklin is a bit of a mystery. Franklin's starting tight ends only caught 27 passes for 370 yards and one touchdown over his past two seasons at Maryland. Barden had 34 catches, 425 yards, and three touchdowns in 2011 alone - comprising over 22 percent of the team's passing offense. While Franklin didn't have a receiving threat like Barden in his stable at Maryland in 2008 and 2009, it'll be interesting to see what he does with the Commodores' highly-touted senior after treating the position as an afterthought in the passing game in recent years.
Barden is a stud and has been recognized as the second best tight end in the SEC by ESPN. At 6'5", 250 lbs, the senior has been a big target over the middle for Larry Smith and a capable blocker at his position. He's Vanderbilt's most reliable option downfield and a steadying force on an often scattered squad. He'll be the team's primary option at TE as long as he can stay healthy.
A shaky offensive line and a coach with a penchant for bubble screens and short passes may suggest that the 'Dores may rely more heavily on two tight end sets in 2011 than in previous years. With lots of quick patterns and check-down passes on the horizon, Brandon Barden will likely be accompanied on the line by Mason Johnston, a strong blocker who stepped up in 2010 to become a presence for the 'Dores. Though Johnston isn't much of a receiving threat, his ability to fill in as a sixth or seventh lineman will earn him plenty of snaps in 2011.
Austin Monahan, the man of a thousand surgeries, would be an outstanding addition to the corps if he can regain the ability that made him a contributor to 2007's Music City Bowl winning team and a starter in 2008 and 2009. He earned an extra year of eligibility for 2011, but it has yet to be seen if he's capable of playing at full strength. If all three are healthy, look for Barden and Monahan to be key targets in the passing game. Johnston will likely be relied on more for his blocking than anything else, but will still play a role in the team's offense.
The true x-factor here is the presence of three highly rated incoming freshmen on the depth chart. Steven Scheu, Dillon van der Wal, and Darien Bryant were all three-star recruits at the position. This creates a log jam at tight end, but that's a good problem to have with Barden and Monahan both departing after 2011. However, predicting which players remain at tight end is a difficult task, which is why all three players are in the "Longshot" category for now (although in this case, maybe we should have just named it the "Wild Card" slot).
Our friend Dimon Kendrick-Holmes over at Moral Victory! suggests that van der Wal is a candidate to move to the offensive line, similar to Thomas Welch before him. However, at 6'7" he could be a big time target in the red zone for the Commodores if he's kept at the position in 2011. Bryant, a 6'4", 215 pound athlete, runs a 4.5 second 40 yard dash and could end up anywhere from linebacker to wideout. Scheu has the most bulk and has a chance to step in immediately in a blocking role, but is more likely to redshirt in his first year on campus.
The AoG pick: Brandon Barden. The starting role is his to lose, but there are plenty of interesting subplots behind him. Can Austin Monahan get back to full strength and stay there for a full season? Will Scheu, van der Wal, and Bryant stay at tight end? Of those three freshmen, who will redshirt?
Barden will get plenty of chances to shine as the established option in a newly installed offense, but time will tell if he's able to stand out enough to be Vanderbilt's first All-SEC pick on offense since Chris Williams and Earl Bennett in 2007. James Franklin didn't utilize his tight ends much in his last three years in Maryland, but he's got the chance to harness a top level talent with his senior starter. Barden will be counted on to be the bridge from last year's stagnant offense to Franklin's vision for the future at Dudley Field. Despite playing tight end, he may end up being the most important player on the field when Vanderbilt has the ball.