Last winter, James Franklin needed just two months to convince 21 high school seniors to sign national letters of intent to play football at Vanderbilt.
The signing class was heralded as one of the program’s best in recent years. Given a whole year to sell the Commodores, the recruiting possibilities could be endless for Franklin.
Well, not quite.
At the Southeastern Conference’s annual spring meetings last month, the 12 presidents and chancellors of the league universities voted unanimously to trim the limit of annual football signees to 25. That was a day after the 12 SEC coaches voted 12-0 to keep the limit at 28.
The new limit takes effect February 2012 when signing day comes again. It is in place to keep schools from oversigning.
Up until last year, SEC coaches could sign as many players as they wanted. But come fall, only 25 could enroll. So if a school oversigned — like Ole Miss did in 2009 with 37 signees — that meant that some prospects walked onto campus in the fall with scholarships no longer available for them.
But league coaches argue that the practice prevents them from coming up on the short end if one of their signees fails to meet the academic standards.
The new rule could slow the efforts of a new coach like Franklin, who is trying to build for the future and turn around a program that has been to just one bowl game in nearly 30 years. Yet he isn’t disappointed.
“It doesn’t have a huge impact on us,” Franklin said. “Most of the guys that these schools were oversigning with were guys that they knew weren’t going to qualify or guys that were going to have to go to prep school or go to junior college. We are not going to be involved with those prospects anyway. ... The more rules that are put in place that are going to enforce other schools to do what is in the best interest of the student-athlete, the better for Vanderbilt. That is what we have always done. We have always put the student-athlete No. 1.”
Still, Franklin was one of 12 coaches who voted to keep the 28-player limit intact, saying he wanted to keep a low profile.
“I wasn’t going to go into my first SEC meetings with my guns blazing,” he said. “I think for the most part, coaches are going to do things the right way and the ethical way and what is in the best interest of the student-athlete. Has there been some time where that has been abused? Yes, there has. I think that this rule was put in to make sure it doesn’t happen in the future.”
The new limitations won’t change any of Vanderbilt’s recruiting practices, Franklin says. Already, the Commodores have 12 verbal commitments for 2012, according to Rivals.com.
To prevent oversigning, the 39-year-old first-year head coach said he handles scholarships on “a first-come, first-serve basis.”
“We might offer 30 linebackers to get those three or four guys,” he said. “That doesn’t mean if you have been offered that you can just call in and accept it and we are going to sign 12 linebackers. We are going to take the first three or four that come. And once we are good with that number, we are going to shut it down and move on to fill another one of those needs.”
Caleb Azubike is one of several high school prospects who has been courted by Vanderbilt and Franklin. The defensive end from McGavock High School recently verbally committed to the Commodores, along with Ensworth High wide receiver Cory Batey and the state’s top prospect, running back Brian Kimbrow of East High in Memphis. All three players said Vanderbilt wasn’t high on their lists until Franklin came onto the scene. They also said they planned to honor their commitments.
“Coach Franklin came in and told me the first day I met him that I was going to come to Vanderbilt whether I liked it or not,” Azubike said. “He just told me why I should go over there. He is just so exuberant and a great guy. I can’t pass this up.”
To college coaches, recruiting can’t be taken lightly.
Of course, in a way, the new rule lightens their load. But it won’t stop most from attacking the offseason with the same intense approach.
“It is the biggest thing you can do to impact your program,” Franklin said of recruiting. “Coaches are important, schemes are important, planning is important but there is nothing more important than having great players. ... We are going to do everything in our power to get Vanderbilt in position to be competitive, within the rules.”
And this year there is one more rule.