Vanderbilt opens 2021 fall camp with five scholarship tight ends on the roster — and four of them have one career reception among them.
That happens when one guy at the position has established himself as THE guy at a position that generally doesn’t rotate all that much. While Vanderbilt under Derek Mason would sometimes use two tight ends in a set, there’s no guarantee that Clark Lea will continue doing that. And inevitably one of the tight ends would be used mostly as a blocker, with one featured guy — sequentially in Mason’s tenure, Steven Scheu, Jared Pinkney, and the current incumbent — handling the bulk of the pass-catching at the position. It’s simply hard to find guys who have the size to play tight end and are good at both receiving and blocking. When you find one of those guys, they’re extremely useful to have around; but you also don’t want to end up with too many “tall, slow wide receiver” or “offensive tackle, but 50 pounds lighter” types.
What we don’t know is how the transition from Mason to Lea will affect the usage of the position. Lea’s first offensive coordinator hire, David Raih, has never been an offensive coordinator before, so we don’t have a book on what exactly he’s going to do on offense — but what we do know is that he’s off the Kliff Kingsbury tree. Raih spent the last two years as the wide receivers coach for the Arizona Cardinals, who... didn’t really throw to the tight end all that much, as is frequently true for Air Raid teams.
Which would be a stark departure from the Derek Mason era.
Ben Bresnahan, redshirt junior: With all that said, Vanderbilt does have a legitimate weapon in Bresnahan, a 6’4”, 244-pound junior from Cumming, Georgia. Bresnahan finished second on the team last season in both receptions (28) and touchdowns (4) and is probably a better option in the passing game than most of the receivers. It’s probably not controversial to say that Bresnahan is the odds-on favorite to be Vanderbilt’s starting tight end in 2021.
Of course, one option here would be to simply use Bresnahan as a wide receiver if Raih doesn’t want to use tight ends much...
Gavin Schoenwald, redshirt junior: The forgotten man from Vanderbilt’s 2018 recruiting haul from nearby Brentwood Academy, which also netted the football team its top wide receiver in Cam Johnson and got the basketball team Darius Garland, Schoenwald has been playing regularly over the past two years (18 games) but has yet to earn a start or catch a pass. That latter fact seems a little surprising, since I had pegged the 6’4”, 237-pound Schoenwald as more of a receiver than a blocker, but he’ll probably find his way onto the field this season unless Raih really wants to de-emphasize the tight end position.
Justin Ball, redshirt sophomore: Ball has bulked up considerably since arriving on campus — he’s now listed on the roster at 6’6” and 245 pounds — and managed to find his way into four starts as a redshirt freshman last season, catching his first pass against Texas A&M (albeit for a three-yard loss) before settling in as a blocking tight end. Again, I really can’t predict how much use Raih will have for the tight ends not named Bresnahan this season, so this is a wait-and-see kind of thing.
Joel DeCoursey, redshirt sophomore and Diego LaMonica, redshirt freshman: Two guys who have been in the program and yet to see the field, and this is a tough position to crack the depth chart at: while Bresnahan is a budding star and Schoenwald and Ball have carved out roles for themselves, I’m not sure that there’s a ton of room for Vanderbilt to use more than those three.