Three seasons ago, tight ends did more than contribute to Vanderbilt’s offensive flow. They paced the production.
Brandon Barden’s 425 yards and 34 catches were team-highs in 2010.
In each of coach James Franklin’s first two seasons at Vanderbilt, however, Barden and his successors have slipped into the shadows of playmaking wide receivers Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd. In 2011, as a senior, Barden caught just 16 passes then signed as an undrafted free agent with the Tennessee Titans during the offseason. Last year, redshirt freshmen Steven Scheu and Kris Kentera combined for three touchdowns but had just 18 catches and 143 yards.
“We kind of have a chip on our shoulder this year, honestly,” Scheu, now a third-year sophomore, said. “We knew last year we were kind of the weak point in the offense. So we’ve been working our tails off this summer, getting in better shape, working with the quarterbacks, building that relationship. We definitely feel like we have something to prove and we’re excited about what is to come this year.”
Tight end continues to remain the question mark for the Commodores’ offense.
Junior college transfer Brandon Vandenburg was expected to vie for starting time immediately. But he was one of four players dismissed from the team in June amidst a sex crimes investigation.
True freshman Mitchell Parsons was expected to grayshirt this year before the dismissals, which opened up a scholarship. But he has not practiced yet nor is he on the updated practice roster. Franklin declined to give a reason for Parsons’ absence, saying, “It’s an evolving situation. We’ll see what happens.”
Franklin added that it is too early to tell if tight end will be a weakness for the Commodores.
“They all have good hands. They all can run and they’re athletic,” he said. “But can they get movement on the defensive tackle or the defensive end? Create double teams and allow us to run the ball and protect the way we need to? It is going to be a wait-and-see right there. We haven’t gotten the production in the past we’ve wanted out of the tight end position so that will be very, very important for our season.”
Scheu, a 6-foot-6, 255-pound target, made seven starts in 2012 and caught eight passes for 48 yards and one touchdown. Kentera, a 6-4, 235-pounder who was recruited as a quarterback, led tight ends with 10 receptions, 98 yards and two touchdowns.
Junior Dillon van der Wal is also back but he has yet to register a catch and primarily served on special teams last year.
“I have confidence in all those guys to make plays,” tight ends coach Charles Bankins said. “Right now people are thinking about the two outside guys [Matthews and Boyd]. Once we start attacking the middle of the field and now they have to have an answer. Now you’ve got to decide, do I cover the outside receivers or do I let his guy keep running down the middle of the field, plus you’re going to run the ball well. You’ve got to pick your poison. We hope they pick a poison and let us catch a lot of balls and make this team better.”
Matthews and Boyd combined for 144 catches, 2,097 yards and 13 touchdowns last year. The receiving tandem expects to highlight the offense once again.
But this year, the tight ends hope to occasionally share in the spotlight.
“As a unit we are light years ahead of where we were last year,” Scheu said. “Obviously Kris Kentera, Dillon and myself we have a lot of experience now. We’re a lot more comfortable out there. We have been working with Carta all summer, building that relationship so I’m really excited about where we’re going. We have two of the best receiving tandems with Jordan and Boyd. They are going to be focusing on those guys a lot. So I’m expecting some more balls. We definitely have to be more effective in the passing game so we can open things up in the running game as well.”