Vanderbilt is trying to fill a void at tight end and hopes to do so with a youth movement.
Freshman Fitz Lassing and redshirt-freshman Mason Johnston are two players the Commodores need to step up after an ACL tear took Austin Monahan out for the season. It is the third season in a row Monahan has sustained a significant injury.
The repetition of breakdowns add to the Commodores' disappointment, but the younger tight ends are still aware that the situation brings about an opportunity to see increased playing time.
“Seeing a guy like Monahan go down who’s been a leader and example for us is obviously tough,” Lassing said. “But at the same time you’ve got to just play the hand your dealt and there is opportunity there. You’ve got to take advantage of it.”
Neither Lassing nor Johnston have Division I game experience but figure to get it -- lots of it -- in 2010.
Johnston looks to be at the front of the pack, which also includes freshman Blake Gowder. Johnston became familiar with Vanderbilt’s system during his redshirt season that the others haven't had. At 6-foot-4 he is an inch taller than Lassing. He also is adept at blocking, particularly baseline-blocks, but said he is still working on his receiving skills.
He has hit the film room with tight ends coach Ted Cain, as well as the practice field, with increased vigor since Monahan’s injury.
“It puts me in a position where I have to succeed,” Johnston said. “I’m going to work as hard as I can to study and take his place.”
Lassing didn’t play tight end in high school so he is still adjusting to running routes at the position. He noted that fourth-year junior Brandon Barden and Monahan, who still attends position meetings, have aided the learning process.
“Fitz comes from Montgomery Bell Academy and was coached very well there,” he said. “They run a lot of similar plays to what we run so his transition is probably a little easier than maybe some true freshmen.”
Barden, who played in every game last season, saw his role greatly increased after Monahan’s 2009 knee injury. He finished 2009 with 29 catches for 357 yards, second on the team to receiver John Cole in both categories. His57 career receptions at VU are the most of any active player.
Barden sat out practice Thursday after hyper extending an elbow during Wednesday’s practice. Coaches said it was nothing serious after X-rays came back negative. Head coach Robbie Caldwell expects Barden to return shortly.
“I’d really call (Barden) a veteran even though he’s just a redshirt-junior,” Cain said. “He has a lot of athleticism, understands defenses well, has very good speed and obviously has good hands. He’s really stepped it up this August camp with his blocks and that’s probably the thing we’re most pleased with right now.”
Cain noted that all his tight ends have “stepped their games up” following Monahan’s injury. The Commodores would have the help of another experienced body in the fold if it were not for an injury-laden August for VU running backs.
Redshirt junior Ryan van Resnburg operates as both a tight end and fullback for the Commodores. When running backs Kennard Reeves and Wesley Tate went out with injuries, Rensburg’s focus has been in the backfield.
Cain said there is a good possiblity that van Rensburg still would see action at tight end this season. At this point, he's just one of many who might.
“There is certainly a bunch of excitement,” Johnston said.
• After rain forced cancellation of Wednesday’s night practice, Vanderbilt had its second two-a-day practices Thursday. A frustrating offensive morning practice, full of dropped passes, was reversed in the evening. The offense moved the football through the air with ease in 11-on-11 drills, which focused on third-and-long situations.
“It was great,” Caldwell said. “They [defense] wanted to work on some zone coverage and their wasn’t as much blitzing. The older guys are learning what to do in some of these pick-ups. It was a good day all in all.”
• Sophomore defensive back Eric Samuels hurt his hamstring on Wednesday. Caldwell expects him to be ready to play again on Monday.
• Linebacker Chris Marve, a preseason all-conference selection, took a stinger in Thursdays practice and had to step off. Caldwell was unconcerned with the severity of the injury.
“He got a little stinger, we don’t know enough details yet but we’ll check him out good,” Caldwell said. “We were probably going to hold him a little bit anyway (Thursday).”
• Caldwell lauded the improvement of freshman offensive lineman James Kittredge.
“He’s playing two positions, snapping the ball and he’s never played center,” Caldwell said. “He’s doing real well. James is extremely physical.”