NASHVILLE, Tenn. – It has been quite the dwindling checklist the past two-plus years for Vanderbilt football under coach James Franklin.
Win nine games for the first time in more than a century – check.
Go to consecutive bowl games for the first time in school history – check.
Win a bowl game for the first time in nearly four decades – check.
Finish a season nationally ranked (No. 23 in the final Associated Press poll) for the first time in nearly seven decades – check.
Assemble a top 20 recruiting class for the first time in program history — check.
Seems the Commodores are growing more accustomed by the day to flying in the rarefied air in which they continue to soar. The latest marker to come off the Vanderbilt board came Wednesday when its incoming class of recruits was announced on National Signing Day.
By early Wednesday night and the polls still open, Scout.com had proclaimed Vanderbilt’s signing class was ranked No. 19 in the country.
“This is a significant day in Vanderbilt football history,” Franklin said of his third Commodores recruiting class. “This signing class is further proof that Vanderbilt has arrived and intends to compete at the highest levels of college football.”
While the team’s 9-4 overall record, including the Music City Bowl victory over North Carolina State, and 5-3 mark in the Southeastern Conference this past season made people take notice, it also comes against the backdrop of the Commodores’ competing in the same league that has produced seven straight national champions.
And while the Commodores can boast of their best recruiting class ever, it also comes with Scout.com ranking the recruiting hauls of seven other Southeastern Conference schools – No. 3 Alabama, Nos. 6 LSU and Texas A&M, No. 8 Florida, No. 9 Ole Miss, No. 10 Georgia and No. 13 Auburn – ahead of them. And with Mississippi State and South Carolina ranked directly behind Vanderbilt, that makes 10 of the top 21 recruiting classes nationally hailing from the SEC, according to Scout.com.
Nationally, Scout.com had Ohio State ranked tops overall, followed by Michigan. No. 4 UCLA and No. 5 Notre Dame rounded out the top five.
“James Franklin is doing a great job getting kids to buy into his energy and enthusiasm,” said Chad Simmons, national recruiting analyst and South regional manager for Scout.com. “And they see that Vandy is on the upswing.
” … He is recruiting players Vanderbilt couldn’t recruit just a few years ago, and he’s landing them as well.”
While the Commodores did not sign any five-star prospects, according to Scout.com, they did sign four recruits that garnered four stars, including linebacker Zach Cunningham, Pinson (Ala.) Valley; defensive tackle Jay Woods, Jackson (Ga.) High; offensive lineman Delando Crooks, Atlanta Carver; and defensive back Ryan White, Louisville (Ky.) Trinity.
Vanderbilt’s class of 26 signees breaks down to 13 players on offense, 12 on defense and one kicker. Five signees played on state championship teams, 20 members were captains of their high school teams and 15 played in postseason all-star games.
“I feel really good about the class overall,” Franklin said. “We don’t feel like we are going to be able to solve all our needs in our first two years. This is what I consider our second class. And we still haven’t been able to fill all our needs.
“But our depth and our competition are increasing overall across our program.”
While the 26-player class had signees representing 10 states, Georgia was quite good to the Commodores, with seven signees. Four each hail from Florida and Tennessee, including three from the talent-rich area of Memphis. The trio of Georgia signees who were highly recruited but chose Vanderbilt include Carver, Woods and middle linebacker Nigel Bowden out of Macon Central.
Of all the players who seem ready to contribute immediately as a freshman, Woods could well top that list. He committed to Vanderbilt last summer and well before playing his senior season.
“I was actually trying to figure out a way we could petition the Georgia state high school coaches association and the NCAA to get him last year,” Franklin said of Woods, who also had offers from Georgia, South Carolina, Arkansas, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Missouri, Nebraska, Michigan State, Southern Cal and others.
“He looks like guys who are playing in this league right now,” Franklin added. “He has tremendous work ethic and an unbelievable attitude. Every time we would go visit him at his school, he would have Vanderbilt from head to toe. He has been one of our more vocal supporters.”
With talented Jordan Matthews and other key receivers graduating after this coming season, the receiver position was a point of emphasis for the Commodores, with five signed at the position. Also signed were three tight ends, including junior college transfer Brandon Vandenburg out of Palm Desert (Calif) College of the Desert. He is expected to compete for playing time this coming season.
The cream of the incoming receiver crop appears to be Jordan Cunningham out of Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) University School. Cunningham, 6 feet 1, 175 pounds, had narrowed his final choices to Stanford and hometown Miami before announcing his decision Wednesday on national television. Cunningham was also recruited by Alabama, Notre Dame, Florida State and Oklahoma State, among others.
“What you saw with Jordan Cunningham was a really good example of him getting up there on national television and how he handled himself, how he presented the information about why he made the decision,” Franklin said. “He talked about his 50-year plan, talked about getting his degree in engineering, talked about being an entrepreneur and talked about making a decision from an academic perspective.
“And that is what we are really trying to do. It was a kid who was choosing from a number of great schools.”
When Franklin arrived at Vanderbilt after being the top assistant at Maryland, there were only two quarterbacks on scholarship. The past season, senior Jordan Rodgers, the younger brother of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, guided the team. Vandy signed two quarterbacks – Chad Kanoff, Pacific Palisades (Calif.) Harvard-Westlake; and Johnny McCrary, Decatur (Ga.) Cedar Grove. McCrary is a mid-term enrollee and will be available for spring practice.
The Commodores also signed five defensive backs, four defensive linemen and three linebackers.
“Overall, I think we really helped ourselves in the talent perspective,” Franklin said. “We helped ourselves from the depth perspective. By far, we keep raising the bar in terms of what we are trying to do in recruiting.”