Vanderbilt returns their top starters at every skill position on the offense in 2012 - except one. The Commodores will be tasked with replacing former All-SEC tight end Brandon Barden.
Those are big shoes to fill. Barden finished his career second all-time amongst Commodore tight ends in both receptions and receiving yards. While he may have been underutilized in James Franklin's first year at the helm, he was still a valuable presence and stable contributor for an offense that suffered through some growing pains as the season went on. Now, the team will have to fill Barden's "security blanket" role from within and find a new player to act as Jordan Rodgers's safety valve.
Austin Monahan will likely get the nod when the team's first official depth chart of the season is published next week, but that doesn't mean that he'll stay there. The longtime veteran is a solid blocking presence but may not be enough of an offensive threat to keep from falling into a platoon role at tight end. When you pair that with Monahan's injury history it becomes clear that stability could be a rare commodity at the position for Vanderbilt in 2012.
There are several other players on the roster who could fill that role. Here are the candidates:
Austin Monahan - If Monahan can stay healthy, he'll be the frontrunner for the starting tight end spot that has been in and out of his grasp since 2007. The sixth-year senior is this team's elder statesman, and his commitment to the Commodores through tough seasons and even tougher injuries has been a point of inspiration for the team. He's a big and powerful blocker who can set up Vandy's running game well, but he had only three catches for 40 yards last season despite playing in all 13 games and making three starts.
Monahan will play plenty of snaps as long as he can avoid the health problems that have plagued his Vanderbilt career. His presence helped pave the way for Zac Stacy's All-SEC season and brought stability to a rebuilding offensive line in 2011. However, he may be relegated to TE2 duties if a young playmaker can provide more of an offensive boost.
Fitz Lassing - Lassing played more fullback than tight end in 2011, but he's strong enough to fill both roles. He has solid hands as a pass catcher out of the backfield, but may lack the top-gear speed to be effective against SEC defenses. While he's earned snaps at TE as the result of injuries in 2010, expect him to remain as a bruising presence out of the backfield rather than on the offensive line.
Kris Kentera - The former quarterback has made some waves in spring and fall practices as a H-Back, providing the Commodores offense with their own version of the Redskins' Chris Cooley out of the backfield and in blocking situations. While Kentera is undersized as a tight end (6'4" but only 230 pounds), he's a solid athlete with a cerebral advantage over the other ends on the depth chart. The redshirt freshman knows the offense from the inside-out as a QB, and his football IQ and playmaking abilities could help him find the field sooner rather than later.
Dillon van der Wal - The sophomore was one of just five true freshmen to see field time in Franklin's first year, but van der Wal was utilized mostly on special teams. The Californian came to Vandy with a stronger reputation as a blocker than as a receiver, and that commitment to clearing out defenders eventually earned him playing time in 12 of the team's 13 games last year.
He'll provide a big target in the red zone at 6'7" and 255 pounds, but he'll have to prove that he has the hands to haul down passes and the speed to stretch the middle of the field when needed. He has impressed staff by adding 25 pounds since his playing days in high school, and if he can translate that strength to his blocking assignments, he could be in line for a breakout year even without the ball in his hands.
Steven Scheu - Scheu redshirted last year, but he's earned praise in practice and could end up starting if he can separate himself from the fray at tight end. Like van der Wal, he's a high level athlete, but Scheu's hands could end up setting him apart from his recruiting classmate. He has shown that he can play in spread and traditional offenses, but his blocking ability may ultimately dictate how much field time he sees in 2012. If Scheu has been locking himself in the practice facilities with O-line coach Herb Hand all summer, he could develop into a major threat for the 'Dores.