NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Little more than two weeks on the job, new Vanderbilt football coach Derek Mason likened his first recruiting class to running a two-minute offensive drill at the end of a game.
Compounding the late start that began with his hire on Jan. 17 was that the previous group of 20 Commodores commitments had dwindled to eight following the departure of previous coach James Franklin to Penn State. But on National Signing Day, Mason revealed an incoming class of 22 signees that Scout.com has ranked 50th in the country.
"We needed to have a class that looked like this football team moving forward in terms of solid depth at all positions and making sure from to top bottom that it is quality across the board," said Mason, the 20-year coaching veteran who spent the past three years as Stanford’s defensive coordinator.
"That’s tough in a two-week period," he added, "but I have to give hats off to my staff. I thought those guys handled the two-minute drill as good as you could handle it and came away with some steals."
The biggest "steal" of the class has to be defensive lineman Nifae Lealao, who Mason had recruited while still at Stanford. The 6-foot-5, 310-pound product of Sacramento (Calif.) Capital Christian announced today he had chosen the Commodores over Stanford, Ole Miss, California, UCLA and Oregon among others.
Lealao is regarded as one of the highest-ranked recruits, if not the highest, in Vanderbilt football history. Scout.com ranked him with four stars as the No. 56 overall prospect nationally and the ninth-best defensive lineman in the country.
During his varsity career, Lealao registered 229 tackles and blocked 19 punt, extra point or field goal attempts.
"Nifae is extremely talented," Mason said of Lealao, who recently played in the U.S. Army All-American Game. "For him, it was more about comfort. We had pursued Nifae at Stanford.
"… Looking at him, he’s athletic and strong and quick and agile."
According to Scout.com, the Vanderbilt recruiting class also signed one more player with four stars — safety Emmanual Smith from nearby Murfreesboro (Tenn.) Oakland. He had originally committed to Vanderbilt under Franklin, who also offered him a scholarship to Penn State. Instead, Smith was one of the first to re-affirm his commitment to the Commodores’ new coaching staff.
"He’s tall. He’s athletic. He’s smart," Mason said of the 6-2 Smith, who also considered offers from Tennessee, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Missouri and Louisville among others. "He plays the game with bad intentions."
The Commodores signed two quarterbacks — Wade Freebeck from Davie (Fla.) St. Thomas Aquinas and Shawn Stankavage from Raleigh (N.C.) Cardinal Gibbons. Both were ranked with two stars by Scout.com.
This past season, Stankavage passed for 3,564 yards and 34 touchdowns and rushed for another 1,058 yards and 13 touchdowns. He is the son of former North Carolina and Denver Broncos quarterback Scott Stankavage and elite swimmer Sue Walsh, who qualified for the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
While playing for national prep power St. Thomas Aquinas last season, Freebeck passed for 1,626 yards and 16 touchdowns.
"Wade is a polished quarterback with the ability to throw the football with great zip and touch," St. Thomas Aquinas coach Rocco Casullo said of Freebeck.
While listed as an athlete by Vanderbilt, Ronald Monroe played quarterback for Houston’s Fort Bend Bush and amassed 5,258 yards of total offense last season, including 3,331 passing yards, and 56 touchdowns.
"I think he is one of the most dynamic players in this class," Mason said of the 6-3, 185-pound Monroe, who is expected to play a variety of offensive and return positions at Vanderbilt. "When you watch him play and you watch him move, it doesn’t matter where he plays. He’s going to make an impact.
"… When you see dynamic players who can change games, you don’t care (where he plays.)"
The Commodores’ incoming class of 22 signees also included 13 players ranked with three stars by Scout.com. There are 11 defensive players, 10 offensive players and one long snapper.
"We wanted to make sure we secured depth," Mason said. "We went after kids that fit our profile and players who are going to look like us in terms of our style of play on both sides of the ball."
By position, the class included six defensive backs, three wide receivers, three defensive lineman, three offensive lineman, two linebackers, two quarterbacks, one running back, one athlete and one long snapper.
"We feel like this class is deep in talent, character and academic integrity," Mason said. "I think we identified what we needed in this class, and that’s exciting. We wanted to find guys that fit what we do."
As soon as being hired at Vanderbilt, Mason simultaneously had to assess the returning roster, begin recruiting and hire his first staff as a head coach. Former UCLA head coach Karl Dorrell was named offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, while Stanford linebackers coach David Kotulski was hired as defensive coordinator and inside linebackers coach.
The incoming class includes signees from nine different states, including three from Tennessee — Smith, Chattanooga East Hamilton defensive back Tre Herndon and Clarksville High linebacker Bruno Reagan. Other states represented include Georgia (five), California (four), Alabama (two), Texas (two), Florida (one), Illinois (one), North Carolina (one) and Pennsylvania (one).
All things considered, Mason said he was pleased with the recruiting class he and his staff put together on such short notice.
"The men that come to Vanderbilt are Vanderbilt men," Mason said of the signees. "Sometimes, that process goes awry. I know for us, in terms of putting together this class, these young men were looking for all the things that we were looking for.
"So, I think our transition and moving into this first class of Vanderbilt men will be a good, nice, solid foundation for this program in terms of moving forward."
Even with the late surge to improve to No. 50 in the country from a national ranking that had dipped into the 70s, Vanderbilt’s incoming class still finished ranked last in the Southeastern Conference, according to Scout.com.
Alabama not only topped the league, but the country as well. Five other SEC teams — No. 2 LSU, No. 4 Tennessee, No. 7 Texas A&M, No. 8 Auburn and No. 9 Florida — finished ranked in the top 10. Other SEC team national rankings included No. 12 Georgia, No. 18 Ole Miss, No. 20 Kentucky, No. 24 South Carolina, No. 32 Missouri, No. 33 Arkansas and No. 39 Mississippi State.
"We say this, ‘The deeper we dig, the higher we can go,’ ” Mason said of his recruiting philosophy. "So, we’re going to dig deep. This group laid the foundation for the footing that we are trying to build in terms of what we look to in 2014."