There's no other way to put it - Coach James Franklin's work on the recruiting trail has been nothing short of epic so far. In just over six months as head coach, he's brought in spring commitments from players who previously would have turned down visits to Vanderbilt's Nashville campus. The staff's work had been good enough to earn the school a top 25 ranking in ESPN's recruiting breakdowns even before last Friday's monumental haul, when the school pulled in three more young athletes who are projected to have a major impact in the NCAA.
Brian Kimbrow's commitment was the biggest headline grabber of all. Kimbrow's signing, if he stays with the program, would be legendary for several reasons. The Commodores simply have never had a recruit of his caliber even strongly consider coming to Nashville in the current era of the SEC. However, it's the position that Kimbrow plays, along with recent commits Corey Batey and Jaydrick Declouet, which may signal a shift in Franklin's approach to his incoming 2012 class of players.
As June rolled over into July, the Commodores inked four recruits in all. Three are position players that will be counted on to restock a depleted offense when summer practices start up next year. Before Batey and Kimbrow's signings, seven of the team's eight recruits were defensive specialists. This leads to an easy question; does this mean that Vanderbilt will now be focusing on skill players to rebuild the team's offense in 2012?
Before last Friday, Franklin's strategy seemed to be to play to the strength that led the Commodores to their only Bowl win since 1955. The team's defense-oriented recruiting had inked ESPN 150 Watch-Listers like Josh Dawson, Stephen Weatherly, and Jacob Sealand. In all, eight players were signed to shore up one of the team's 2011 weaknesses (linebacker and to a lesser extent, the defensive line) while keeping the team prepared to face SEC offenses down the road. However, the program still had an even bigger challenge on the other side of the ball - fixing one of Division I's worst offenses.
Vanderbilt's offense was dire in 2010. The team was unable to sustain drives, the passing game was non-existent, and the Vandy's moral victories were tied just to keeping Larry Smith upright in the pocket. This inability to make anything work on offense overloaded the team's solid defense and led to fourth quarter breakdowns and eventual blowouts. The team wasn't as bad as their 2-10 record suggests last year, but their inability to string big plays together helped ensure that only a handful of faithful fans were paying close attention by the end of the year.
The late 2010-2011 recruiting cycle addressed some of these concerns. Franklin's sniping of incoming freshmen like Josh Grady, LaFonte Thorogood, Dillon van der Wal, and Darien Bryant will give the team some talented playmakers at quarterback, tight end, and other potential positions. However, it still failed to address the team's biggest problems at wide receiver and along the offensive line.
The both corps are stocked with some young prospects, but neither position is talented enough to propel the Commodores out of the SEC basement in 2011. Jordan Matthews and Jonathan Krause showed flashes of talent in an underutilized 2010 campaign, but the cupboard is bare behind the two sophomores. The offensive line is an even bigger question mark, but one that should give us a good idea of how strongly Frankin and his crew can develop players. Can a squad that returns all five starters make the improvements they need to in order to keep Larry Smith from getting beheaded every time he drops back to pass?
Even running back, the team's position of strength in 2011, will need reinforcements from the 2012 class. Warren Norman and Zac Stacy will be seniors by then, and along with Wesley Tate, they'll provide the leadership for a new class of Vanderbilt athlete before graduating. Additionally, last year's injury-riddled campaign showed just how fickle depth at tailback can be - five different players earned 40 or more carries in the 2-10 season.
While Friday's biggest headline was Vanderbilt snagging three players with ten stars between them (from Rivals), a comforting undercurrent was the program's focus on restocking skill positions. Frankly, the team's inability to string together any form of consistent offense made games at Dudley Field painful to watch. The addition of the country's #2 all-purpose running back and a pair of fast, high-level receivers will not only improve the product on the field in 2012, but bring more fans to the Vandy sideline.
Help is still over a year away, but a strong program is in place. Talented young playmakers like Matthews, Krause, Norman, and Stacy will have their chance to shine in 2011. Afterwards, they'll be given the opportunity to move into a leadership role for one of the most athletically gifted Commodore squads of all time (if these early commitments hold). There's still a lot of work to be done, but the promise is there. More skill players stacking the depth chart will only add layers to the team's potential, and that's the philosophy this team's staff is taking with them to each and every recruit's house.
Defense wins games, but a solid offense will keep fans coming to Vanderbilt Stadium. So far, the 2012 recruiting cycle is promising to deliver both. Time will tell if James Franklin and his staff can keep the prospects coming in his bid to rebuild Vanderbilt football.