Austin Monahan has been here before – four times, in fact.
The last four Augusts, Monahan began preseason training camp at Vanderbilt healthy and eager to make an impact. His last three seasons, however, ended the same way – injured and with him on the sideline.
Four practices into this year's camp, Monahan hopes to salvage a career that began with so much promise.
“This season is the most important season of my career,” Monahan said.
The 6-foot-6, 242-pound tight end from Charlotte, N.C. was one of just three freshmen to take the field in 2007. He had one catch but stood out enough as a reserve and a contributor on special teams to earn a starting spot in 2008. Then in the fourth game of the season, against Ole Miss, he landed on his shoulder awkwardly – breaking his bone in two spots – and took a medical redshirt.
Primed for a fresh start in 2009, he recorded season highs with 10 receptions and 92 yards. That season ended prematurely again as he tore his ACL in his left knee during the seventh game.
Determined not to let that slow him down, Monahan underwent surgery and battled through rehabilitation. When he arrived at fall camp last year, he was re-energized.
“I was back playing full speed, playing great,” he said. “[Then] sort of on a freak play, I hurt the other one.”
Monahan tore his ACL in his right knee just a week before the season opener and was forced redshirt and undergo more season-ending surgery.
“That’s tough. That is tough to deal with, especially when you are finally back getting into it, playing, really, pretty well again then that happens,” he said. “There is that grieving process where it is hard to positive for a week or a couple days after. But you just can’t feel sorry for yourself. You have to reposition yourself from a contributor on the field to ‘All right, what is the best thing I can do to help this team move forward?’
“I was trying to coach up the younger guys on offense and try to help out anyway I could. ... You just have to grow up and move on. I matured a lot because of those different things.”
His healthy presence this August bolsters a tight end group that head coach James Franklin believes has as much as depth as any other offensive unit.
“As camp goes on and we get closer to the season, the more confidence in his legs, in his knees and his ability, you’ll see even more from him,” Franklin said of Monahan. “Since the day I got here he has been [driven]. He is in my office. He is in [tight ends coach Charles] Bankins’ office. He is asking questions. He is watching film. He is highly motivated.”
Monahan has two years of eligibility left and intends to graduate in December with a degree in economics. He then hopes to attend graduate school at Vanderbilt for organizational leadership.
He might have two seasons left, but Monahan knows – better than anyone at Vanderbilt – nothing is a given.
“If anyone knows that this game doesn’t last forever it is me,” Monahan said. “I am grateful to go out here every day and I am attacking every day like it is my last.”
• Tight end could be a position of strength and much depth.
Redshirt-senior Brandon Barden most likely will be the starter. He was a preseason All-SEC second-team selection and was also named to the watch list for the Mackey Award, which is given annually to the country’s most outstanding tight end.
The 6-foot-5, 246-pounder led the Commodores last year in receptions (34) and receiving yards (425).
Plus, redshirt-sophomore Mason Johnston (6-4, 240) filled in nicely for Monahan, playing in 10 games. He too is bouncing back from an injury (leg) that kept him out of spring practices. New to the mix are big freshmen Steven Scheu (6-5, 245) and Dillon van der Wal (6-7, 235).
“We have great height. They are thick guys,” Franklin said. “They should be really good blockers. They are all capable catchers as well. ... I think that is a pretty good group. I am pleased with how we were able to recruit this past year and what we already have in front of us. That is another group, kind of like running back, that I feel pretty good about from top to bottom.”
• Chris Boyd was wearing a redshirt injury jersey on Tuesday – one day after apparently hurting his left arm. After hauling in a long pass during 11-on-11 drills on Monday, the redshirt-freshman wide receiver dove into the end zone after receiving a soft shove from a trailing defender. He slid on the turf and right into one of the massive buckets for players’ post-practice ice baths. He was immediately tended to and seem to be favoring his upper left arm.
Along with Boyd, defensive end Walker May, punter/quarterback Taylor Hudson, offensive lineman James Lewis, wide receiver Brady Brown and center Logan Stewart did not participate in drills. Neither did defensive back Steven Clarke, who sat out for the fourth straight practice but was wearing an orthopedic boot on his left foot Tuesday.
• The Commodores will practice with full gear for the first time on Wednesday.
“They have been waiting a long time, especially on the defensive side, to strike somebody,” Franklin said. “You are going to have some guys who maybe didn’t show up running around in their shorts but they show up when their pads come on. ... I think some guys will show up there and some guys will actually disappear.”