When the dust settled on national signing day last week, Vanderbilt reeled in a truckload of talent. Just not a Ford.
When Johnathan Ford committed to Vanderbilt and coach James Franklin last April he rated as a just a three-star prospect with little national fanfare. After a sensational senior season, however, his stock rose. Rivals.com tabbed him as the top running back in Alabama and scholarship offers poured in, including from his hometown school, Auburn. The Monday after he visited Auburn, Ford de-committed from Vanderbilt and later signed with the Tigers.
Even though Ford fell through, recruiting experts believe the Commodores’ ability to make in-roads early will pay dividends in the long term.
“I think they want to be the first people in on these guys,” said 247Sports national recruiting analyst Barton Simmons. “Johnathan Ford is going to leave a bad taste in their mouth. But the reality is this is a kid who was wanted by Georgia, Florida State, Tennessee and Auburn pretty desperately and Vanderbilt was the team to beat. I think they understand that, particularly at Vanderbilt, when you are recruiting in the brutal SEC you have to be in early. You have to build those relationships early.”
Joining the conversation early helped Franklin and the Commodores nab the highest signing class in program history. Vanderbilt’s 2013 class was ranked 19th by Rivals.com and Scout.com, 22nd by ESPN.com and 30th by 247Sports.com.
“Ninety-five percent of our class we had no drama with,” Franklin said. “They were in from the beginning. They gave us their word. They stuck by their word. We did the same thing.”
Twelve of the 26 players who signed committed before August. Rivals.com recruiting analyst Jesse Johnson said at least six signees were part of a group of 20 that partook in Vanderbilt’s first big recruiting event of the season, “VIP Junior Day,” last February.
“They didn’t necessarily offer them first but they were involved and then offered,” Johnson said.
“Vanderbilt knew they were going to offer some of these kids but a lot of it has to do with timing. Either transcripts or ‘we feel this kid is going to qualify’ or they’re waiting to see if they make that next jump athletically or maturitywise.”
In 2011, summer commitments from the top prospect in Tennessee, running back Brian Kimbrow, and McGavock standout defensive end Caleb Azubike, helped the Commodores sign a highly rated 2012 class.
This year, Johnathon McCrary served as that gateway to other possibilities. He was one of those select few invited to the “VIP Junior Day.” While he was the first player in the 2013 class to commit to Vanderbilt, he said Vanderbilt was the last school to offer him a scholarship.
In that case, waiting paid off for the Commodores. McCrary said he respected the Vanderbilt coaches for delving deeper and building a relationship. As a result, the Ellenwood, Ga., native committed last February, nearly a year before he could sign. Vanderbilt snagged the nation’s 10th best quarterback, according to Rivals, away from Alabama and Georgia, among others.
“I guess they wanted to see if I was worthy enough,” said McCrary, who enrolled at Vanderbilt in January. “They wanted to see what type of person I was. They just didn’t want to give me an offer off my athletic ability. … I figured this is a great opportunity. You don’t want this to slip by. You can’t get anything better than a world-class education and playing against the best athletes in the nation.”
Franklin says he and his staff avoid getting too wrapped up in players’ ratings. Instead, he uses a “checks and balances” system.
Heading up the recruiting charge is player personnel director Andy Frank and offensive and defensive recruiting coordinators Josh Gattis and George Barlow. With more sets of eyes, the better for Franklin, who has been on staffs that dispatched just one coach to evaluate a player.
“I think they’ve certainly proven to be ahead of the curve on a lot of guys,” Simmons said. “They trust their evaluations. They trust their instincts. I think there is a nice mix of guys like that in this 2013 class. You’re always in trouble when you just start recruiting off of stars and just other offers. I think Vanderbilt has done a nice job of balancing that.”
The Commodores also have pounced on their fair share of late bloomers. Johnson uses outside linebacker Zach Cunningham as a prime example. Cunningham was a player Franklin and the Commodores were well aware of while they recruited wide receiver DeAndre Woods, who played at nearby Clay-Chalkville High. But heading into his senior season at Pinson Valley (Ala.) High, Cunningham had just one official offer – from Alabama-Birmingham. Then he annihilated his competition with 194 tackles, 12 sacks and four blocked punts.
The 6-foot-4, 205-pounder became a consensus four-star recruit and was ranked as the 10th best player in Alabama. Vanderbilt waited until after the season to offer. Last week, Cunningham passed over Oregon and Auburn, among others, when he was the last player to sign with the Commodores.
“We make sure we’re really detailed and really thorough,” Franklin said. “It’s not the players you lose. It is the players you take that can’t play. That will get you beat. I think we’ve done a pretty good job of that. You hope, just like the draft, that the players are who we thought they were and that we got lucky on a few.”