Monday, January 31, 2011

UPDATED: Vanderbilt lands even more recruits who supposedly weren't even considering the Dores

The Commodores just got three more verbal commitments:

• Larry Franklin, one of the top safety prospects in Florida and a solid three-star prospect with offers from Michigan State, Wisconsin, Illinois and Maryland.

• Barron Dixon, an SEC-sized defensive end prospect from the Atlanta area with a solid three stars and offers from Arkansas, Miss State, Ole Miss and Maryland.

• Jimmy Stewart, a skinny outside linebacker/defensive end in the Walker May mold who decommitted from Maryland.

The cool thing about this class: The first you hear a player really wants to go to Vandy is when he commits just a few days before signing day. How often in the past year have we heard the names Dillon van der Wal, Andrew Williamson, Larry Mazyck, Jahmel McIntosh, Jacquese Kirk, Steve Scheu, Larry Franklin and Barron Dixon?

Not very often.

This sure beats hearing for six months that a player is considering Vanderbilt and then at the last minute he commits to say, Tennessee, and you get the feeling he was never serious about us. That was the old way, when he patted ourselves on the back just for being in the running for a player. You call those moral victories, and we’d like to start having some real ones.

Anyway, this class is up to 15 verbal commitments, with quarterback/athlete Josh Grady from Justin Cabbagestalk’s alma mater in Florida deciding between us and a handful of other places like Iowa and South Florida, and with some rumblings that four-star athlete Lafonte Thourogood is considering decommitting from Virginia Tech to join the Dores. Thourogood is projected as a wide receiver but also is a talented quarterback.

Here’s how we’re looking:

• James Lewis, Tennessee, 6-5, 295, 3 stars
• Larry Mazyck, Virginia, 6-7, 320, 3 stars
• Jake Bernstein, Illinois, 6-4, 275, 3 stars
• Jose Valedon, Tennessee, 6-4, 270, 2-3 stars
• Spencer Pulley, Tennessee, 6-5, 277, 2-3 stars

• Larry Franklin, Florida, 6-2, 190, 3 stars
• Jahmel McIntosh, Mississippi, 6-1, 200, 2-3 stars (also listed at WR)
• Andrew Williamson, Texas, 6-2, 180, 0-2 stars

• Derek King, Tennessee, 5-11, 180, 3 stars (also listed at ATH)
• Jacquese Kirk, Alabama, 6-0, 170, 3 stars

• Dillon van der Wal, California, 6-7, 240, 3-4 stars
• Steve Scheu, Indiana, 6-5, 225, 2-3 stars

• Mitchell Hester, Florida, 5-10, 180, 2-3 stars

• Barron Dixon, Georgia, 6-4, 270, 3 stars
• Conor Hart, Michigan, 6-3, 255, 2-3 stars
• Jimmy Stewart, Florida, 6-3, 215, 2-3 stars

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Vandy's two more commitments, including a safety and a four-star TE, allow some guys to change positions

Vanderbilt has picked up two more verbal commitments, from four-star tight end Dillon van der Wal of California and from two-star safety Andrew Williamson from Texas. Van der Wal backed off an earlier commitment to Arizona State and turned down an offer from Arkansas, while Williamson was something of a late bloomer who had offers from Northwestern and Wake Forest.

Van der Wal and Williamson free up Vandy to at least consider moving some guys to other positions.

At 6-foot-7 with soft hands, Van der Wal is a big-time weapon. Suddenly, Vandy has a glut of talent at tight end:

• Brandon Barden (6-5, 250) R-SR: He’ll be a four-year starter, and is an NFL prospect who’s been forced to carry too much of the receiving burden over the past two years.
• Austin Monahan (6-6, 255) R-SR: If he can rebound from yet another devastating injury and return for his fourth season, then the younger guys will have time to develop.
• Mason Johnston (6-4, 245) R-SO: A solid prospect known more for his blocking, he struggled catching the ball as a redshirt freshman before a season-ending injury. He’ll play, but primarily as a blocker.
• Fitz Lassing (6-3, 220) SO: Lassing burned his redshirt last season to mainly play special teams. Don’t be surprised if he switches to fullback or linebacker.
• Blake Gowder (6-2, 215) R-FR: An all-purpose athlete with good receiving skills, Gowder lacks the size of an SEC tight end. He could also move to fullback or linebacker.
• Dillon van der Wal (6-7, 230) FR: If Monahan doesn’t return, van der Wal could get a major role in the offense. He’s a definite upgrade over Johnston, Gowder and Lassing.
• Steve Scheu (6-5, 240) FR: The talented freshman just saw his chances to play as a true frosh drop with van der Wal’s commitment. He’ll probably redshirt, which makes sense because Barden and Monahan will be gone next year.

As for Williamson, remember that Sean Richardson wasn’t a highly regarded prospect. With excellent closing speed, he’ll be one of our fastest safeties. With Richardson and Kenny Ladler returning as starting safeties – and with three solid backups in sophomores Andre Simmons, Karl Butler and Jay Fullam – Williamson and fellow commitment Jahmel McIntosh allow the Commodores to make some moves.

For example, Butler, who’s 210 pounds and growing, could be moved to linebacker, where the Commodores need to find some answers. McIntosh could wind up at receiver.

It’ll be interesting to see if we get any other recruits and how they might affect our roster.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

So exactly which Vanderbilt verbal commitments are still committed?

Not sure which high school seniors are going to sign with Vanderbilt? You're not alone. In fact, you'd best wait until next Wednesday to find out.

If you follow the commitment lists on Scout, Rivals and ESPN, you'll see that 16 players are headed to Vanderbilt. But not all the sites list the same players. Here's a breakdown:

• Jake Bernstein, OG/OT
• Conor Hart, DE
• Mitchell Hester, RB
• J.J. Keels, RB
• Derek King, ATH
• Jacquese Kirt, DB
• James Lewis, OT
• Larry Mazyck, OT
• Jahmel McIntosh, ATH
• Spencer Pulley, OT
• Steven Scheu, TE
• Jose Valedon, OG/OT

• Damien Fleming, QB

• Marquis Sumler, RB

• Courtney Bynes, WR
• Shaun White, QB

So how many of these guys are really headed to Vanderbilt? From what I'm hearing, the four players not on every list — Fleming, Sumler, Bynes and White — will not be matriculating at Vanderbilt. Also, it sounds like J.J. Keels has just changed his mind, or had his mind changed for him.

In the past month or two, Alex Barr and Keith Heitzman changed their minds and switched to NC State and Michigan, respectively. But these last-minute defections appear to be the decision of Coach Franklin and staff. The reasons may include academics or just not fitting into the plans of the new regime.

So that means we have 11 recruits. Does that worry you?

It doesn't worry me. Right now, Franklin is saddled with a gigantic class of redshirt juniors signed before the Music City Bowl season and composed of mostly two star prospects. We're talking 19 players, including five linebackers who have yet to start more than a single game in their careers. He'll have a bunch of scholarships to give when those guys finally leave, but in the meantime every scholarship is valuable.

Last season, the Commodores made a last-minute offer to Fitz Lassing, a local scholar whose other offer was from Harvard. And when Rajaan Bennett died, they filled his scholarship with long snapper Andrew East.

You won't see Franklin doing that. He's made a bunch of moves in the last few weeks, and all are aimed at improving the team. Both quarterbacks, neither who had other SEC offers or fit into the new system, are apparently gone. A couple of guys who could have been academic casualties were asked to go to prep school and left. Bynes was fast but was unrated by most services, and he's probably gone too. Sumler and Keels, if he indeed is gone, were athletic, change-of-pace offensive players, but in their place we've added athletes Kirk and McIntosh, and we've already got King and Hester.

And Franklin has added Mazyck, the kind of ridiculously huge lineman we only dream of getting, and a big SEC tight end in Steven Scheu.

Don't be surprised to see Franklin pick up a quarterback he really wants, and maybe a few other surprises. And if he can't improve this class, he's not going to be making sentimental offers. He'll save those scholarships for next season. Because, after all, his main recruiting focus is on the class of 2012, and I'm predicting that could be a truly exceptional class by our standards.

Six more days till signing day.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

UPDATED: Vandy stealing great recruits, hosting four-star prospects, and counting available scholarships

OK, you’ve got some questions about Vandy recruiting, so here are some answers, or at least answers that raise more questions.

Who have we lost from our commitment list over the last few days?
You probably know that we lost OL Alex Barr before Christmas to NC State and DE Keith Heitzman to Michigan earlier this month. It appears that both quarterbacks, Damien Fleming and Shaun White, are gone too. Both were spread guys and Franklin's not a spread guy, at least not primarily. And RB Marquis Sumler appears to be gone. I'm hearing that academics played a role in at least one of our latest defections.

But who have we added?
Word's spreading right now that we've signed Larry Mazyck, a 6-7, 320-pound offensive tackle, who was Maryland's first verbal commitment. Finally, an SEC-sized lineman. This could be Vanderbilt's biggest recruit ever, size-wise. And a few days ago, we stole two great-looking three-star recruits, Jacquese Kirk and Jahmel McIntosh, from Louisville and Memphis, respectively. And we picked up 6-5 tight end Steven Scheu from Indiana. So we've definitely improved the class. While Heitzman was a solid recruit, both Fleming and White were project guys, and Sumler was considered the third wheel at running back behind recruits J.J. Keels and Mitchell Hester. Hester's stock just keeps rising, and he appears a solid verbal after wavering a bit in the fall.

What recruits have recently visited or are scheduled to visit?
Get a load of this: Three four-star players are scheduled to make official visits to Vandy this weekend: QB Michael Eubank of California, RB Bishop Sankey of Washington, and TE Dillon van der Wal of California. Think those guys could help the offense? We’re also getting visits from talented defensive backs, running backs and receivers, and even a fullback. All the stud linemen have been gobbled up. But just the fact that Coach Franklin could get three four-star players from the West Coast to visit Vandy the weekend before signing day says volumes about his ability as a recruiter.

What positions are critical for us to recruit?
Vanderbilt always needs to upgrade at every position, especially on the line on both sides of the ball. That said, it has stockpiled offensive linemen, receivers and defensive backs in the last two classes. Especially critical positions are:
• Quarterback: Two years from now, given our current roster, we’ll have Charlie Goro, who'll be a redshirt senior, AND NOBODY ELSE. Yikes. Getting a four-star quarterback in his first class would be a huge coup for Coach Franklin.
• Linebacker: Two years from now, we’ll have R-SR Blake Southerland, SR Chase Garnham and R-JR Andrew East on the roster, and we’ve got no linebackers in the upcoming signing class. Yikes!

Which incoming freshmen might play right away?
At 6-5, 295 with nimble feet, James Lewis could be a fixture on the offensive line the moment he steps on campus. Mazyck will need some polish, but at least he doesn't have to gain 40 pounds before he can play, like most of our O-line recruits do. Receiver Courtney Bynes isn’t highly rated, but he’ll be one of the fastest players on the team and will get a shot. Scheu looks like a Brandon Barden clone, a big man who can both block and run deep patterns, and he'll really be needed if Austin Monahan can’t rebound from injury.
And five – count ’em! – five smooth athletes will be making strong cases for roles in the offensive backfield or at receiver or in the secondary, especially if Jamie Graham doesn’t return. Those guys are Hester, Keels, Kirk, McIntosh and Derek King.

How many scholarships does Vanderbilt have to give?
Vandy currently has 70 players on scholarship who have eligibility remaining and who did not go through senior day festivities. This assumes that walk-on punter Richard Kent has a scholarship, and I’m not 100 percent certain he does, though I imagine a starter would have been given a scholarship. That means Vanderbilt has room to sign 15 players.

Is there a chance any other scholarships might be freed up?
There are rumors that Jamie Graham is going to graduate and decline a fourth year of eligibility. That’s highly plausible because Jamie’s a guy with clear career goals outside football. Still it would be a shame that somebody as talented as Jamie would play less than two full seasons for us. Another possibility – and this is sheer speculation – might be Austin Monahan, a massive tight end who’s experienced a ridiculous string of devastating injuries and who’s played less than one full season.

Will Vandy fill all its openings this season?
If the Commodores do have 15 to give, and they have indeed lost Fleming, White and Sumler, then they've got 13 verbal commitments and two scholarships left to give.

How many scholarships will Vanderbilt have available next year?
That depends on how many players return for a fifth year. That class before the Music City Bowl was huge, and had a bunch of projects. Only two of the 21 members – Hayward and Richardson – avoided redshirts. Those who’ve been regular starters include WR John Cole, OLs Jabo Burrow and Ryan Seymour, PK Ryan Fowler, P Richard Kent and DT Rob Lohr. Those with major backup roles include LBs Archie Barnes and Tristan Strong, DT Colt Nichter and OL Caleb Welchans. Vandy is also woefully short on linebackers and would probably try to keep Dexter Daniels and DeAndre Jones, who coaches hope will finally reach his potential. QB Jordan Rodgers is also a lock to remain on campus for two more seasons. At least five players have one foot out the door and had better have a heck of an impact on the season to return for a fifth year: WR Akeem Dunham, DTs Josh Jelesky and Taylor Loftley, S Al Owens and LB Micah Powell. If those guys leave as expected, Vandy would have 16 scholarships to give, provided it uses its full allotment this season.

How important is the performance of younger players in determining which redshirt seniors return?
I think it’s huge. Tray Herndon came to us as a promising receiver who excelled in the Big 10 as a freshman. He struggled, and then the emergence last season of freshmen Jonathan Krause and Jordan Matthews made him obsolete. If, for example, freshman James Lewis and redshirt freshman Grant Ramsay emerge as starters, and underclassmen like Mylon Brown and Andrew Bridges catch fire, then Jabo Burrow or Caleb Welchans might not return. Carey Spear could beat out Ryan Fowler at kicker. John Cole might get pushed to the curb by all the young receivers. You never know.

So what’s the overall prognosis?
Very promising. Even while logging losing seasons, Bobby Johnson was improving the talent base. Instead of the FCS prospects and unwanted kids that Johnson inherited, James Franklin’s first Vandy team is full of bona-fide SEC players. Sure, the other SEC teams may be loaded with bona-fide NFL players, but Franklin will be able to compete right away.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Here's an updated list of Vanderbilt's SEC-caliber players

We recently listed the 21 Vandy players with offers from SEC schools. Somebody suggested we also include players with offers from non-SEC schools with Top 25 recruiting classes. When you add the schools with a Top 25 class over the past four years, the list of "legitimate" players grows to 35, with 29 of those players signing after the Music City Bowl victory. (That includes eight players from the upcoming 2011 class who have not yet signed and may not all come to Nashville.)

In other words, Coach Franklin has a far better talent base to build on than Bobby Johnson had, which means Franklin can likely get the Commodores to a bowl earlier in his tenure than Johnson did.

You need good players to start with, and you certainly want the players that successful programs want, but that doesn't automatically mean success. For example, Casey Hayward's best offer was from Troy, and Chris Marve's best offer was from Memphis. Both of those guys will be playing on Sunday.

Conversely, Taylor Loftley and DeAndre Jones are starting their fourth season and have seen scant playing time to date. From the 2009 class, Thad McHaney had offers from Oklahoma and Auburn and is still listed as third team defensive end, while Brady Brown had an offer from Nebraska and didn't see a snap last year.

You've got to earn it, even at Vandy. Anyway, here's the complete list:

• Kyle Fischer, R-SR, OL, Kentucky

• Tristan Strong, R-JR, LB, Auburn
• Taylor Loftley, R-JR, DL, South Carolina
• Sean Richardson, SR, S, Miss State
• DeAndre Jones, R-JR, LB, Kentucky, Stanford
• John Cole, WR, R-JR, Stanford

• Thad McHaney, R-SO, DE, Auburn
• Wes Johnson, R-SO, OL, Auburn
• Warren Norman, JR, RB, Tennessee, Stanford, Georgia Tech
• Mason Johnston, R-SO, TE, Arkansas
• Eddie Foster, JR, DB, Ole Miss
• Wesley Tate, R-SO, RB, Georgia Tech, Stanford
• Trey Wilson, JR, DB, Stanford
• Brady Brown, R-SO, WR, Nebraska
• Charlie Goro, R-SO, QB, Illinois

• Kyle Woestmann, R-FR, DE, Georgia, South Carolina, Clemson
• Vince Taylor, R-FR, DL, Tennessee, Miss State
• Thomas Ryan, R-FR, DL, Tennessee
• James Kittredge, SO, DL, South Carolina
• Logan Stewart, SO, OL, South Carolina
• Kenny Ladler, SO, S, South Carolina
• Jonathan Krause, SO, WR, Ole Miss, Stanford
• Jared Morse, SO, DL, Arkansas, Florida State
• Steven Clarke, SO, DB, Miami
• Andre Simmons, SO, S, West Virginia, Boston College, Illinois
• Chris Boyd, R-FR, WR, Illinois
• Andre Hal, SO, DB, Nebraska

• Derrick King, FR, ATH, Auburn, Tennessee, Arkansas
• Mitchell Hester, FR, RB, Arkansas
• James Lewis, FR, OL, Kentucky
• Courtney Bynes, FR, WR, Illinois
• J.J. Keels, FR, RB, West Virginia
• Keith Heitzman, FR, DE, Illinois
• Jake Bernstein, FR, OL, Illinois
• Damien Fleming, FR, QB, West Virginia

How many SEC caliber players does Vandy have? Glad you asked

There’s been a lot of talk lately about Coach Franklin needing to find some SEC-caliber talent. Which begs the question, what exactly is SEC-caliber talent?

Here’s a pretty logical answer: Talent that was sought by other SEC teams.

So how many players on Vanderbilt’s 2011 roster had scholarship offers to other SEC schools. If verbal commitments Mitchell Hester, Derrick King and James Lewis all sign with the Commodores, then 21 out of Vandy’s 85 scholarship athletes turned down a chance to play at other SEC schools.

Let’s break it down in levels:

LEVEL 1: Players whose best SEC offer was from a team that has won the national championship in the past five seasons:
• Tristan Strong, LB, Auburn (2008)
• Thad McHaney, DE, Auburn (2009)
• Wes Johnson, OL, Auburn (2009)
• Derrick King, ATH, Auburn (2011)

LEVEL 2: Players whose best SEC offer was from a team that averaged a Top 10 recruiting finish:
• Kyle Woestmann, DE, Georgia (2010)

LEVEL 3: Players whose best SEC offer was from a team that in the past five years has averaged a Top 25 finish in recruiting:
• Warren Norman, RB, Tennessee (2009)
• Vince Taylor, DL, Tennessee (2010)
• Thomas Ryan, DL, Tennessee (2010)
• Taylor Loftley, DL, South Carolina (2008)
• James Kittredge, DL, South Carolina (2010)
• Logan Stewart, OL, South Carolina (2010)
• Kenny Ladler, S, South Carolina (2010)
• Mason Johnston, TE, Arkansas (2009)
• Jared Morse, DL, Arkansas (2010)
• Mitchell Hester, RB, Arkansas (2011)
• Eddie Foster, DB, Ole Miss (2009)
• Jonathan Krause, WR, Ole Miss (2010)

LEVEL 4: Players whose best SEC offer was from a team with recruiting consistently in the bottom quarter of the conference:
• Sean Richardson, S, Miss State (2008)
• Kyle Fischer, OL, Kentucky (2007)
• DeAndre Jones, LB, Kentucky (2008)
• James Lewis, OL, Kentucky (2011)

Look how these 21 Vandy players with SEC offers break down according to class:
• 2 seniors
• 5 juniors
• 8 sophomores
• 6 freshmen (including redshirts)

To this list of SEC caliber players you can definitely add those players who’ve been named to All-SEC teams:
• Chris Marve, LB (2007)
• Brandon Barden, TE (2007)
• Casey Hayward, DB (2008)

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

We're reserving judgment on Franklin's staff

We've been quiet lately, mostly because there's not much to say before signing day. Several people have requested we analyze the assistant coaching staff, but I'm not too excited about doing that because you measure the success of a staff based on how well they complement the head coach and work together as a team, not by how big their names are. So while some of you understandably wanted to be wowed by the names of the assistant coaches and were a little bit disappointed when you weren't, we'd rather just wait and see the results, which will take a while.

The first test is signing day on Feb. 2. Looks like we won't be signing a hotshot quarterback. Franklin has visited verbal commitment Shaun White in Pensacola so he wants to keep at least one of our two QB verbals, while Damien Fleming has been waffling, perhaps because he's not wanted. Who knows. But I do know that most Vandy fans myself included are hoping Jordan Rodgers gets healthy and turns out to be half the quarterback his brother is. If he can establish himself as our leader the next two seasons, we should have a decent team — we're young, with lots of young linemen and receivers — and Franklin would buy himself some time to sign a talented quarterback in 2012 and then develop him.

Franklin has lured a bunch of impressive recruits to campus for a visit, including four-star running back Bishop Sankey, so that's a good sign even if nothing pans out this year. He doesn't have many scholarships to dole out anyway.

Just a few thoughts. I'll have something tomorrow.