Monday, January 11, 2010

Why back-to-back winning seasons would be huge for Vanderbilt football

You know what Vandy needs to do to turn the corner in football?

Produce back-to-back winning seasons.

And not just because the Commodores haven't had back-to-back winning seasons since 1975. It would mean a recruiting class with a strong start and a strong finish.

Before the 2007 season, Vandy was coming off a 4-8 season and had 10 verbal commitments from mostly two-star players. After finishing 5-6, the Commodores added 11 more mostly two-star players.

Before the 2008 season, Vandy had 10 verbal commitments, again from mostly two-star players or three-star players like Zac Stacy and Eric Samuels who didn't have offers from major programs. But after finishing with a winning record and a bowl victory, the Commodores finished strong by stealing Thad McHaney from Ole Miss, landing Wesley Tate whom they'd pursued for more than a year, and four more three-star players.

When Johnson signed those players, he said his next class would be even better. He was right. Before the 2009 season was in the toilet, he'd already received verbal commitments from a staggering 19 players, 17 of them with three stars. After Vandy's two wins were in the books, tight end prospect Davis Dudchock jumped ship to Stanford, and lots of our commitments started visiting places like Auburn, Florida State, South Carolina and Kentucky.

So far, the remaining 18 — guys like Kyle Woestmann, Jerrell Priester and Bradley Roby — appear to be honoring their verbal commitments. But adding the three-star players that came so easily after last year's Music City Bowl victory has proven tough, and upgrading to four-star players has proven impossible.

Since the season ended, Vandy has received four more commitments:
• Blake Gowder, a low three-star player who caught a ton of passes in high school but who's too slow to be a receiver and too small to be a tight end; he'll probably be a linebacker.
• Jordan Rodgers, a JUCO quarterback who appeared to be going to Kansas before Mangino got fired; best known as Aaron Rodgers' little brother.
• Jordan Matthews, a wide receiver from Alabama who's supposedly Jerry Rice's nephew. He's unrated by ESPN but got three stars from Rivals.
• Chase Garnham, an unrated linebacker from Alabama who's been clocked in the 40 at sub-4.4 but isn't kin to any former NFL players as far as we know.

It should be noted that all these guys are projects who committed as soon as they were offered; in other words, Vanderbilt was their best option. That doesn't mean they won't be great players — Vandy was the best option for an unrated player named Sean Richardson, now one of the most underrated players in the SEC.

There's more hope. James Stone, a hulking offensive tackle from Maplewood, Tenn., has narrowed his schools to Alabama, Auburn and Vandy. He would be the rare Vandy lineman — a game-ready specimen who could skip the year-long training table meal and start competing for a starting assignment right away.

Even without Stone and even if another commitment or two jumps ship, in February Johnson will still have his best signing class by far — and probably Vandy's best ever.

But the Commodores will likely struggle to lure top commitments before the 2010 season starts. It could spell doom for the 2011 recruiting class if next season resembles the last one.

If the Commodores have a successful 2010 season, however, they'll be back in the running for some high-quality players and could finish strong.

And if they could follow a winning season in 2010 with another one in 2011, then look out.

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