Rexrode mailbag: Vanderbilt fans strike back on recruiting

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VIDEOS: VANDERBILT'S 2017 SIGNING CLASSVanderbilt Signing Day press conference | 3:16

Coach Derek Mason makes opening remarks on 2017 National Signing Day. Adam Sparks

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VIDEOS: VANDERBILT'S 2017 SIGNING CLASSVanderbilt 2017 signing day class | 1:08

Vanderbilt’s 2017 signing day class is the fourth under coach Derek Mason, and it follows the Commodores' first bowl appearance in his tenure. Karen Grigsby / The Tennessean

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VIDEOS: VANDERBILT'S 2017 SIGNING CLASSVanderbilt scouting report: Dayo Odeyingbo | 0:42

The Tennessean’s Adam Sparks and Sean Williams of VandySports, a Rivals site, provide insight and analysis into Vanderbilt’s 2017 signing class. Wochit

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VIDEOS: VANDERBILT'S 2017 SIGNING CLASSVanderbilt scouting report: Bryce Bailey | 0:36

The Tennessean’s Adam Sparks and Sean Williams of VandySports, a Rivals site, provide insight and analysis into Vanderbilt’s 2017 signing class. Wochit

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VIDEOS: VANDERBILT'S 2017 SIGNING CLASSVanderbilt scouting report: Grant Miller | 0:45

The Tennessean’s Adam Sparks and Sean Williams of VandySports, a Rivals site, provide insight and analysis into Vanderbilt’s 2017 signing class. Wochit

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VIDEOS: VANDERBILT'S 2017 SIGNING CLASSVanderbilt scouting report: Cole Clemens | 0:42

The Tennessean’s Adam Sparks and Sean Williams of VandySports, a Rivals site, provide insight and analysis into Vanderbilt’s 2017 signing class. Wochit

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VIDEOS: VANDERBILT'S 2017 SIGNING CLASSVanderbilt scouting report: Jonathan Stewart | 0:44

The Tennessean’s Adam Sparks and Sean Williams of VandySports, a Rivals site, provide insight and analysis into Vanderbilt’s 2017 signing class. Wochit

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VIDEOS: VANDERBILT'S 2017 SIGNING CLASSVanderbilt scouting report: Jacob Free | 0:46

The Tennessean’s Adam Sparks and Sean Williams of VandySports, a Rivals site, provide insight and analysis into Vanderbilt’s 2017 signing class. Wochit

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VIDEOS: VANDERBILT'S 2017 SIGNING CLASSVanderbilt scouting report: Dimitri Moore | 0:36

The Tennessean’s Adam Sparks and Sean Williams of VandySports provide insight and analysis into Vanderbilt’s 2017 Singing Day class. Wochit

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VIDEOS: VANDERBILT'S 2017 SIGNING CLASSVanderbilt scouting report: Randall Haynie | 0:39

The Tennessean’s Adam Sparks and Sean Williams of VandySports, a Rivals site, provide insight and analysis into Vanderbilt’s 2017 signing class. Wochit

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VIDEOS: VANDERBILT'S 2017 SIGNING CLASSVanderbilt scouting report: Stone Edwards | 0:31

The Tennessean’s Adam Sparks and Sean Williams of VandySports, a Rivals site, provide insight and analysis into Vanderbilt’s 2017 signing class. Wochit

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VIDEOS: VANDERBILT'S 2017 SIGNING CLASSVanderbilt scouting report: Tae Daley | 0:39

The Tennessean’s Adam Sparks and Sean Williams of VandySports, a Rivals site, provide insight and analysis into Vanderbilt’s 2017 signing class. Wochit

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VIDEOS: VANDERBILT'S 2017 SIGNING CLASSVanderbilt scouting report: Colin Anderson | 0:39

The Tennessean’s Adam Sparks and Sean Williams of VandySports, a Rivals site, provide insight and analysis into Vanderbilt’s 2017 signing class. Wochit

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VIDEOS: VANDERBILT'S 2017 SIGNING CLASSVanderbilt scouting report: Jalen Pinkney | 0:41

The Tennessean’s Adam Sparks and Sean Williams of VandySports, a Rivals site, provide insight and analysis into Vanderbilt’s 2017 signing class. Wochit

14 of 14

  • Vanderbilt Signing Day press conference
  • Vanderbilt 2017 signing day class
  • Vanderbilt scouting report: Dayo Odeyingbo
  • Vanderbilt scouting report: Bryce Bailey
  • Vanderbilt scouting report: Grant Miller
  • Vanderbilt scouting report: Cole Clemens
  • Vanderbilt scouting report: Jonathan Stewart
  • Vanderbilt scouting report: Jacob Free
  • Vanderbilt scouting report: Dimitri Moore
  • Vanderbilt scouting report: Randall Haynie
  • Vanderbilt scouting report: Stone Edwards
  • Vanderbilt scouting report: Tae Daley
  • Vanderbilt scouting report: Colin Anderson
  • Vanderbilt scouting report: Jalen Pinkney

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Vanderbilt football coach Derek Mason speaks during a football National Signing Day press conference at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2017.(Photo: Andrew Nelles / The Tennessean)Buy Photo

I have to give credit to Vanderbilt fans. One, for coming after me on criticizing Derek Mason’s 2017 recruiting class (most of the emails I got in response last week defended Mason and took issue with my take). And two, for making really solid arguments in many cases.

Don’t get me wrong, my mind isn’t changed – trying to judge a recruiting class on the day it is signed is folly anyway, but the information I have available to me tells me Vanderbilt has to do better than this. Still, perspective is always important. And especially for the long-suffering Vandy fans, there’s no shortage of perspective on how much better things look now vs. years ago. Here are some of the best emails I got, followed by my responses:

You made a good case, and yes, those rankings are more valid than ever before and really do mean something.

That said, Vandy is a special case. As you noted, there are the academic requirements. (Gosh darn it, that pesky educationy thingy again.) So that narrows the field of potential recruits. Then there’s that darn thing about wanting to play for a potential national champion and maybe have a more direct route into the NFL, so that limits Vandy’s potential pool, too. Then, when you take this small pool of smart, pretty good players who aren’t betting their whole future on the NFL and see the value of a Vanderbilt education, and you add Mason’s desire that they be tall and fast, you’ve got a really tiny bunch.

So we’ll see what happens. James Franklin could probably turn these guys into winners. Mason may or may not. But I’ll take him over Butch Jones any day.

Speaking of Franklin, you mentioned his 2013 class, a darn good one, to be sure. But how were the classes he inherited ranked? I don’t really know, but I doubt if they were top 50. Yet, he did wonders with them. So while those rankings are totally genuine and indicative of what should happen, let’s not dismiss smarts, coaching and desire. (And I’m not saying you do.)

One of my favorite bumper stickers from about 20 years ago: “Harvard: The Vanderbilt of the North.”

Jim in Nashville

Good question on the Bobby Johnson classes. Going back to the 2007-10 classes that Franklin inherited and using Rivals (the 247Sports composite rankings didn’t start until 2010), we have class rankings of 71, tied for 97 (!), 78 and 65. So none as high as the one I decided to rip. Franklin changed the expectations, of course, and he also managed to do some good things with those inherited players.

And I certainly don’t dismiss coaching, development, smarts, desire, all that good stuff. Look, on my last job I covered a college football program that took “two-star” scrubs such as Le’Veon Bell, Darqueze Dennard and Trae Waynes and turned them into college stars and prominent pros. Very few teams wanted Kirk Cousins. No one wanted Jack Conklin. And so on. But the difference is that Michigan State also won its share of battles for high-profile recruits.

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Former Pearl-Cohn running back Ke‘Shawn Vaughn (5) played two years at Illinois and is transferring to Vanderbilt to be part of the Class of 2017.  Mike Granse / USA TODAY Sports Ranchview High School defensive lineman Dayo Odeyingbo (58) of Ranchview, Texas, is a 2017 Vanderbilt football signee.  Tom Fox, Dallas Morning News Brantley, Ala., High School quarterback Jacob Free is a 2017 Vanderbilt football signee.  Montgomery Advertiser Maui High School linebacker Feleti Afemui of Kahului, Hawaii, is a 2017 Vanderbilt football signee.  Brad Sherman / The Maui News Oaks Christian School linebacker Michael Owusu (88) of Westlake Village, Calif., is a 2017 Vanderbilt signee.  Ventura County StarBuy Photo Pearl-Cohn‘s Braden DeVault-Smith (42) is a 2017 Vanderbilt signee.  Michael Murphy / The Tennessean Cornerback Allan George of Andalusia, Ala., High School is a 2017 Vanderbilt signee.  Josh Dutton/Andalusia Star-News Receiver Chris Pierce, left, of Smithfield (Va.) High School is a 2017 Vanderbilt signee.  Jonathon Gruenke, Daily Press Cardinal Gibbons High cornerback Randall Haynie of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., is a 2017 Vanderbilt football signee.  Carline Jean / Sun Sentinel Defensive end Jalen Pinkney (44) of Norcross, Ga., High School is a 2017 Vanderbilt football signee.  Jason Getz / Atlanta Journal-Constitution Northside defensive back Tae Daley (3), of Warner Robins, Ga., is a 2017 Vanderbilt football signee.  Beau Cabell/ Macon Telegraph Cedar Hill, Texas, High linebacker Dimitri Moore (7) is a 2017 Vanderbilt football signee.  Andy Jacobsohn / Dallas Morning News Iolani High School defensive lineman Jonah Buchanan (92) of Kahului, Hawaii, is a 2017 Vanderbilt football signee.  Submitted photo Bingham High School offensive lineman Cole Clemens of South Jordan, Utah, is a 2017 Vanderbilt football signee.  Chris Detrick, Salt Lake Tribune Cardinal Gibbons High receiver James Bostic Jr. of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., is a 2017 Vanderbilt football signee.  Cardinal Gibbons High School Orange High School defensive lineman Stone Edwards of Hillsborough, N.C., is a 2017 Vanderbilt football signee.  Hillsborough High School Castle High School offensive lineman Bryce Bailey of Newburgh, Ind., is a 2017 Vanderbilt football signee.  Castle High School Brooks High School limebacker Colin Anderson of Killen, Ala., is a 2017 Vanderbilt football signee.  Allison Carter/Florence (Ala.) Times Daily St. Thomas Aquinas High offensive lineman Grant Miller of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., is a 2017 Vanderbilt football signee.  St. Thomas Aquinas High School Mountain View High School offensive lineman Jonathan Stewart of Lawrenceville, Ga., is a 2017 Vanderbilt football signee.  Mountain View High School

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And as you point out, there’s quite a difference in the pool of players available to most high-major schools such as Michigan State and the pool available to Vanderbilt (and a few schools such as Duke, Northwestern and Stanford). I definitely get all that. And I get that Vanderbilt is never going to win any signing day championships.

So what would have been impressive here? A ranking in the 40s? In the 30s? To me it’s not as much about that number. I look at recruiting classes sort of the way the NCAA selection committee looks at potential tournament teams. Impressive wins count more than bad losses. As they should. The point is finding teams that demonstrate they have the chops to win games in the tournament.

And if a recruiting class ranking is dragged down by some “two-star” reaches, fine. I’d rather see that along with some “four-star” wins in the class. That may average out to the same final ranking, but at least you have some anchors to the class, some guys who (you think) will have a chance to be difference makers early.

THANKS SO VERY MUCH for your gratuitous article slamming Vanderbilt‘s recruiting. Recruiting is indeed difficult at a small, highly academic school like Vanderbilt. It was gracious of you to go out of your way to make it even tougher in the future.

Phil

Easy, Phil! For one thing, I don’t think it was gratuitous. For another, if one column that says your recruiting isn’t good enough harms future recruiting, you never had a chance in the first place.

You‘re sort of the (new guy) in town, so I won‘t ride you too hard. You‘re correct in your statements about the quality of this year‘s recruiting class … however, compared to lots of previous years, these kids are the damn New England Patriots. I‘ve seen classes where the highest-rated player in the recruiting class had maybe one more scholarship offer, and it was from Old Dominion. I‘m kidding … sorta. James Franklin was able to pull several rabbits out of his hat when he was coach, but he was a much better salesman than coach Mason. Mason claims to be recruiting a certain body type for his teams, and also claims that player ratings don‘t mean anything to him at all. I guess we‘ll see. He‘s had some work out well that had no stars at all. Not a lot, but some. I‘m not sold on Mason personally. I guess my point is that while I hope they turn out well, I‘m not counting on it. The plus side is, the players no longer look like a ski team like they did in the 80s. So they‘ve got that going for them.

Mark

A ski team?! Now that’s funny. This is definitely helping me get a better sense for how grim things used to be for Vanderbilt football. Through that lens, you look at what Mason is doing and it all looks pretty good. But then, this column was not about anything but this particular recruiting class, coming off a breakthrough season and not appearing to benefit much from it. It’s obviously possible to win without celebrated recruiting. But the idea is to improve on the field and on the recruiting trail as a tenure progresses. And the problem for Mason, of course, is that he’s following a born salesman who managed to have an incredibly successful three-year tenure with the Commodores.

I think you have a significant amount of comparison flaws.

1. The class rankings aren’t done yet.  We will almost certainly finish higher than 62.

2. The more players you get, the more points you get, the higher you are ranked. ​​​​​Franklin’s last class in 2013 had 26 commits. Masons’s this year had 19. Next year’s class will be a full one for Vandy, so we will almost certainly be ranked significantly higher. Look at average player rankings if you want to go about a comparison, not just straight aggregate points.

3. Recruiting rankings don’t take into account transfers. Our biggest get was Illinois transfer Ke’Shawn Vaughn. He doesn’t count for our class and he won’t show up in our rankings. But there is no surer bet in our class than a running back who has averaged 5 yards a carry on 220 carries against Big Ten competition.  We told a recruit to move on because we are getting Vaughn. Hurts our class and our ranking, helps our team (as an aside, there are more transfers coming.  Which will only emphasize this point).

4. Forty percent (a stunningly high number) of Franklin’s class in 2013 did not make it to campus (at all), didn’t play (at all), or had very little impact. I am talking about guys like Jordan Cunningham, Carlos Burse, Mitch Parsons, Brandon Vandenburg, Chad Kanoff, Gerald Perry, Tre Bell, etc. Franklin was much more of a star gazer than Mason. And for what it is worth, Ralph Webb was the lowest-rated position player in the entire 2013 class and was seen by many recruiting analysts as a desperate, last minute reach.

5. You mention two of our players having other options, that is crazy. Look at the offer list of Dimitri Moore (several large schools were trying to get him to visit and flip until he enrolled early), Jacob Free (same), Bryce Bailey (same), Dayo Odeyingbo (Texas was trying to get him to flip the last week), Randall Haynie, Jalen Pinkney, Colin Anderson, Cole Clemens, Feleti Afemui, etc. Some of the offers for recruits are not commitable, but they are only not-commitable in most cases because someone else commits first, taking that spot.

                I think there are some legitimate points of concern for this class.  A lack of speed at receiver, or a lack of playmakers at receiver. But this is very likely to be at the top or close to the top of our best OL and DL recruiting class in history, so there are areas for optimism, certainly.

Salty from Nashville

Salty, thanks for the thorough and well-thought response. I’ll answer the same way.

  1. As of Monday morning, the class was down to No. 64. But as I mentioned earlier, the ranking of the class is not as important to me as the presence or absence of some heavy hitters.
  2. I’m aware that larger classes get higher rankings, no question. And I’m also aware that Vanderbilt is not like Alabama (and much of the rest of the SEC) in the practice of over-signing and then weeding out guys who come in and don’t match up with the profiles. For that matter, it’s worth mentioning that Vanderbilt is the least likely SEC school to be involved in a bag of cash magically finding its way into the hands of a targeted recruit’s father, mother, uncle or handler.
  3. Agree that Vaughn looks like a great pickup, an extremely well-timed transfer. But this column is about recruiting, and two years ago Vanderbilt recruited him and he picked Illinois. Transfers, player development, game planning, play calling … a lot of things other than recruiting go into winning.
  4. I did not realize Webb was regarded like that, great example of why signing day is what it is. We are all, in the end, guessing.
  5. I will take your word on the interest in the recruits you mention. As I wrote in the column, I have a few people who have been in the recruiting game for a long time whose insights I value, and they had some pointed things to say about Vanderbilt’s recruiting. Again, analysts are much better at what they do now than even a few years ago. But they’ll never be close to perfect. If this turns out to be a great class, then we’ll know that Mason and his staff are extremely good at evaluating and developing. In the meantime, I would hope the 2018 class would be better (though that will be tied somewhat to the 2017 performance), and I do think Vandy needs to do more locally. Yes, the pool of candidates is smaller because of the academic requirements. And so Vanderbilt has to look everywhere. But you still want strong in-state relationships and as many kids from close as you can get, because it’s going to be your most reliable source of talent. And because you can rely more on information about people in your own backyard.

What exactly are Vanderbilt‘s academic “restrictions?” It appeared that almost every Butch Jones signee in 2014 and 2015 had a Vanderbilt “offer.” Check it out. Methinks they doth protest too much!

Sandy from East Tennessee

They may have technically offered scholarships, Sandy, but that doesn’t mean they could have taken all those kids (also, offers listed on recruiting websites often turn out to be exaggerated). But your question is a good one. It would be interesting in the future to break down exactly how different Vandy’s academic standards are from the rest of the SEC (and other private institutions that play in Power 5 leagues). But if you’re asking because you think there isn’t a significant difference … you’ll be disappointed in the answer. Vanderbilt is operating under more restraints than UT and others.

If Vanderbilt is doing things right explain to me WHY they are last in recruiting in the SEC — 14th out of 14 teams is not a winning statement. Maybe another 500 season is our reality in the upcoming season. Offensively we strike fear in no opponent. Ralph Webb will regret staying his senior year and taking another beating he doesn‘t deserve.

Chris

If Vanderbilt ever gets higher than, say, 12th in the SEC, that’s a huge upset. You can be last in the SEC and still have what looks like a good, competitive class. I don’t think this one got there. I also don’t necessarily agree with your take on next season. The offense took some big leaps late in the 2016 season and Webb should have a good senior season. I think this could be an eight-win team

Unlike the team out east that we beat this year and consistently recruits in the top 20, we develop our players. Your condescending article is much appreciated in bringing into laser-focus the job we have before us to continue to own the state championship. When you can’t recruit every bubba beast available, it does make the job of creating a team that is more than the sum of its individual talents harder. I understand that these recruiting analysts are important to you in your position and they have to justify their salaries, but I think anyone can see Vanderbilt’s program is coming together nicely. It’s interesting that you used Alabama as your contrasting recruiting class as we will meet them in our first SEC game here in Nashville next year.  Let’s talk after that.

Darrell in Franklin

Well, OK.

Joe Rexrode at and follow him on Twitter .

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