The tight end is a big piece of Derek Mason's offense. Fortunately, he's got a crop of big, athletic pass catchers who can take a lot of pressure off Vanderbilt's quarterback in 2016.
DeAndre Woods and Jared Pinkney will return from injury this fall and team with Nathan Marcus and Sam Dobbs to give the Commodores one of the deepest and most versatile depth charts in the SEC. Mason and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig will have the flexibility to add additional blockers, reliable short range receivers, and deep threats up the seam based on their lineups this fall.
That platoon will work to replace graduated All-SEC tight end Steven Scheu. Scheu backslid as a senior, but his 2014 campaign painted him as the only reliable aerial threat in Karl Dorrell's offense. He led all receivers with 39 receptions and 525 yards while Vandy's tight ends made up 45.6 percent of the team's passing output that year. By comparison, with Ludwig at OC, Scheu's output fell to 26-231 and the team's ends gained 25.2 percent of Vandy's aerial yards.
Vanderbilt's TE output won't be as low as it was in 2015, but it won't be as high as it had been in 2014 either. The emergence of a young receiving corps and a solid sophomore quarterback in Kyle Shurmur should help diversify the Commodore passing game. Still, the presence of big play tight ends like Woods and Pinkney will help this team's offense develop as it chases an already-effective defense off the field.
The veterans and presumptive starters
DeAndre Woods, redshirt junior: Woods came to Vanderbilt as a four-star wide receiver recruit and developed into a solid tight end prospect in 2015 after a slow start to his NCAA career. He began a breakout campaign last fall and caught seven passes (on nine targets!) for 129 yards in two-plus games before suffering a season-ending leg injury. Those numbers may not look like much, but that 18.4 yards-per-catch figure showcases just what an explosive weapon he can be up the seam.
Woods, now totally healthy, should benefit from a more stable presence at quarterback in Shurmur. If he can keep up the pace he showed in limited snaps last season he should finish his junior season as an All-SEC selection.
Nathan Marcus, redshirt junior: Marcus, another highly-touted prospect, took a backseat to Scheu his first two active seasons on campus. Now he's ready for a breakout year after establishing himself as a solid, edge-sealing blocker in 2014 and 2015. Marcus has soft hands and runs tight routes, and his ability to separate from defenders in intermediate routes makes him a strong complement to Woods and the rest of the Vandy offense. He'll see more snaps than ever in 2016, but his work the past two seasons suggests he's ready for the opportunity.
The space-clearing blocker
Sean Dowling, senior: This converted lineman gives Vanderbilt a sure-footed blocker along the margins and will see plenty of time in jumbo sets. He won't be a very exciting player -- he didn't earn a single target in 2015 -- but he'll be a valuable extra blocker and veteran leader for this developing skill group.
The emerging young talent
Jared Pinkney, redshirt freshman: Pinkney had exactly one target as a true freshman, and it ended about as poorly as it could have when he suffered an upper-body injury that kept him out the rest of 2015. Fortunately for the Commodores, he was able to redshirt and will return in 2016 as a big tight end instead of an enormous wideout. Pinkney is a wide-bodied red zone target with good wheels and the ability to clear out space when the ball is in the air. He's not afraid to catch the ball over the middle and has solid hands, so expect to see him in Andy Ludwig's rotation this fall.
Sam Dobbs, sophomore: Dobbs, at 6'4, 220 pounds, is the smallest of Vanderbilt's tight ends, and that means he may see time at wideout as well. He doesn't have the speed to be a burner downfield, but he has the hands and route awareness to be a solid possession receiver down the line. He does a good job of adjusting to the ball while it's in the air, but he needs to prove he can overcome a lack of elite athleticism to make an impact against SEC opponents.
Turner Cockrell, freshman: Cockrell is a true freshman at the end of a well-stocked depth chart, but Derek Mason has shown before he'll burn a redshirt if it means he thinks a player can produce. However, at 220 pounds he's built more like Sam Dobbs, and as a low three-star recruit he may need the extra time to bulk up and sharpen his game. He showcased solid hands and decent speed as a high school player, so we'll see if that translates immediately at the NCAA level.