Is There a Link Between Better Recruiting and More Disciplinary Problems at Vanderbilt?

James Franklin has suspended or dismissed 10 players in his tenure at Vanderbilt. - USA TODAY Sports

Four players were recently dismissed from the Vanderbilt program amidst a sex crime investigation, turning heads towards a rising football team that was previously regarded as squeaky clean. Is there a tie between Vandy's new recruiting success and its disciplinary action?

Vanderbilt football has grown from SEC doormat to rising commodity in less than three years under head coach James Franklin. Unfortunately, that rise hasn't come without setbacks. That has never been more evident than this past month, where four Commodore players were dismissed from the university in the midst of an investigation as to whether or not a sex crime occurred on campus. Brandon Vandenburg, Brandon Banks, Cory Batey, and Tip McKenzie were all potential difference-makers who can no longer call themselves Commodores.

The same goes for players like Jacquese Kirk, Logan Stewart, Mitchell Hester, or Mylon Brown. It also applies to Andre Simmons, another student-athlete that the university quickly distanced itself from after he was charged with two felony counts of burglary back in 2011. It may just be a fallacy connected to how fresh these memories are for Commodore fans, but it certainly seems like discipline has become a bigger issue in recent years than in years past.

It's been easy to dismiss the recent string of problems as a kind of "good football tax." Vanderbilt had been the SEC's cleanest program for years, but also its least respected on the gridiron. Meanwhile, programs like Miami and Florida had developed into perennial title contenders despite dealing with off-field issues that threatened to derail their promising seasons. Was there a connection between the quality of player that a program can bring in on the field and their propensity to wind up in trouble off of it? Are discipline problems an unfortunate side effect of success?

Let's take a look at the players that have been dismissed from the Vanderbilt football team over the past three years, and see if their skill level (as recruits) lends any weight to this debate. For the record, this isn't a scientific analysis, just an observational look at the players who have led Vanderbilt in their recent revival and the players who were removed from the program before they could make that impact. It will be very subjective, and hopefully it will lead to some friendly debate down the road.

This breakdown will look at a few questions surrounding the Commodores who have been disciplined, their status with the team, and the violation they committed:

1. How highly regarded was the player as a high school recruit, and who recruited him?

2. Was this player slated for a starting role with the Commodores in the following season?

3. Were the reasons behind disciplinary action disclosed? If so, was a serious crime committed?

4. Did the player return to the team?

5. Would this player have come to Vanderbilt during the Bobby Johnson era? (For this, we'll reference any player with 5.7 Rivals Rating or below. 5.7 was the approximate peak of Johnson's recruiting in Nashville.)

6. Would this player have made a significant impact on a winning team?

Here are the players that have earned publicized discipline from the university since Franklin took over at the tail end of 2010. For simplicity, "recruited by" will refer to whomever was head coach (or outgoing head coach, if necessary) whenever a player committed to Vanderbilt.

November 16, 2011: Andre Simmons, DB.

Three-star player (5.7 Rivals Rating) recruited by Bobby Johnson, Class of 2010.

Returning or projected starter? No.

Reason for discipline? Two felony counts of burglary after an alleged robbery on campus.

Did he return to the team? No.

Would he have come to Vanderbilt under Bobby Johnson's recruiting power? Yes.

Would this player have made a significant impact on a winning team? Unlikely. Simmons was thrust into action as a true freshman, but his role decreased as a sophomore, and then he was thrown off the team before the season ended. While he showed the ability to be a run-stopping safety, it's unclear whether or not he would have graduated from his role as a special teams contributor.

January 4, 2012: Logan Stewart, OL.

Three-star player (5.5 RR) recruited by Bobby Johnson, Class of 2010.

Returning or projected starter? Yes.

Reason for discipline? Not disclosed.

Did he return to the team? No.

Would he have come to Vanderbilt under Bobby Johnson's recruiting power? Yes.

Would this player have made a significant impact on a winning team? Yes. Stewart was an instant contributor in Nashville and had two years of eligibility left when he was removed from the team. He was a hothead that caused trouble on the field, but he was also a competent blocker for Vanderbilt.

January 4, 2012: Mitchell Hester, RB.

Two-star player (5.4 RR) recruited by Robbie Caldwell, Class of 2011.

Returning or projected starter? No.

Reason for discipline? Not disclosed.

Did he return to the team? No.

Would he have come to Vanderbilt under Bobby Johnson's recruiting power? Yes.

Would this player have made a significant impact on a winning team? No. Hester was fast, but playing behind a stacked tailback rotation.

March 14, 2012: Mylon Brown, OL.

Two-star player (5.3 RR) recruited by Bobby Johnson, Class of 2009.

Returning or projected starter? Yes.

Reason for discipline? Not disclosed.

Did he return to the team? No.

Would he have come to Vanderbilt under Bobby Johnson's recruiting power? Yes.

Would this player have made a significant impact on a winning team? Yes. Brown was big, but his presence as a starter was due more to a lack of depth at the position than his abilities. Still, Herb Hand could have used him in 2012.

March 14, 2013: Jared Morse, DT.

Three-star player (5.6 RR) recruited by Bobby Johnson, Class of 2010.

Returning or projected starter? Yes.

Reason for discipline? Not disclosed.

Did he return to the team? Yes.

Would he have come to Vanderbilt under Bobby Johnson's recruiting power? Yes.

Would this player have made a significant impact on a winning team? Yes. Morse is set to lead the "Wild Dogs" into battle this season after being a part-time starter on last year's nine-win team.

April 2013: Jacquese Kirk, DB/WR.

Three-star player (5.6 RR) recruited by James Franklin, Class of 2011.

Returning or projected starter? No.

Reason for discipline? Forced to transfer after stabbing former Vanderbilt OL Justin Cabbagestalk in a bar incident.

Did he return to the team? No.

Would he have come to Vanderbilt under Bobby Johnson's recruiting power? Yes.

Would this player have made a significant impact on a winning team? Probably. It's tough to project, but Kirk was developing into a usable wideout when he left the team. With Jordan Matthews and Jonathan Krause set to graduate next spring, Kirk would have had a chance to contribute at the position and provide needed depth.

July 2013: Cory Batey, DB/WR.

Three-star player (5.6 RR) recruited by James Franklin, Class of 2012.

Returning or projected starter? No.

Reason for discipline? Possible sex crime.

Did he return to the team? No.

Would he have come to Vanderbilt under Bobby Johnson's recruiting power? Yes.

Would this player have made a significant impact on a winning team? Probably. Batey was competing for a role in the safety rotation when he was dismissed from the team. With good size and athleticism, he could have grown into the role that Kenny Ladler and Javon Marshall will leave behind when they graduate in 2014.

July 2013: Brandon Banks, DB.

Three-star player (5.5 RR) recruited by James Franklin, Class of 2012.

Returning or projected starter? No.

Reason for discipline? Possible sex crime.

Did he return to the team? No.

Would he have come to Vanderbilt under Bobby Johnson's recruiting power? Yes.

Would this player have made a significant impact on a winning team? No. Banks still has a lot of growing to do, but it doesn't look like he would have been a difference maker amongst a very strong Commodore secondary.

July 2013: Tip McKenzie, WR.

Three-star player (5.6 RR) recruited by James Franklin, Class of 2012

Returning or projected starter? No.

Reason for discipline? Possible sex crime.

Did he return to the team? No.

Would he have come to Vanderbilt under Bobby Johnson's recruiting power? Yes.

Would this player have made a significant impact on a winning team? Probably. Like Kirk, McKenzie was a WR prospect on a team that doesn't have much established depth behind Matthews/Boyd/Krause. He would have had a chance to shine as a slot receiver in 2013, but his overall impact is difficult to predict.

July 2013: Brandon Vandenburg, TE.

Three-star player (5.6 RR) recruited by James Franklin, Class of 2013.

Returning or projected starter? Yes.

Reason for discipline? Possible sex crime.

Did he return to the team? No.

Would he have come to Vanderbilt under Bobby Johnson's recruiting power? No. Vandenburg was only the second junior college player to come to Vandy in the past decade, and his high ranking by ESPN (#2 overall for JuCo players) suggest that he may have been outside of Johnson's scope of influence.

Would this player have made a significant impact on a winning team? Yes. Vandenburg was pegged as an early starter for the 'Dores this summer. His combination of size and receiving ability would have added extra depth to the Commodore offense.

---

Half of the players that have found trouble under James Franklin came from the Johnson/Caldwell era. That makes sense, since those two coaches are responsible for recruiting the bulk of the players that have played for James Franklin so far. Only now, in 2013, is the roster comprised of a majority of players who chose Nashville under Franklin's watch. As such, this 50/50 split will be a tenuous balance between the two groups of players; at least until all the players from Johnson and Caldwell's watch have graduated.

A look at these athletes suggests that the high profile recruits that have become Franklin's hallmark have avoided trouble so far. The only player who is highly-rated enough to have been considered an impact commitment on signing day was Brandon Vandenburg, and even then you can make the case that a strong pitch from Johnson may have swayed him to Nashville. Vandenburg, who was touted by ESPN but not as strongly hailed by Rivals, is the closest the team has to a consensus four-star player that has landed in trouble.

That recruiting data suggest that Franklin's recent success with high school athletes hasn't been a factor in the school's recent disciplinary record. The players who have ended up in trouble haven't been stars, either on the field or amongst their recruiting classes. Few of these players were slated for significant roles with the Commodores the season after their transgressions, though players like Kirk, Batey, and McKenzie all would have had the chance to earn snaps as supporting cast members. Morse, arguably the biggest contributor amongst this group, was even able to put in the work necessary to end up back in Vanderbilt's good graces. Bringing in higher caliber athletes, it seems, is not negatively affecting the football team when it comes to off-the-field problems.

Of course, that brings up another question that data can't answer; is the recent record of suspensions a peripheral result of Franklin's gregarious personality as a head coach? Bobby Johnson was a soft spoken disciplinarian who mostly avoided the spotlight while guiding his team towards respectability. He never had a run - in terms of off-the-field problems or on-the-field success - that Franklin has had in a much shorter term as the head of Vanderbilt football.

Franklin, on the other hand, has brought the media spotlight down upon Nashville with back-to-back bowl bids and a frank demeanor with the media and on the gridiron. Are players more likely to cut loose thanks to an atmosphere that seems much more laid back than in the past? Or have these recent suspensions been a product of the program bearing down on infractions before a more focused media eye can pick them up at Vanderbilt?

In short, are more players acting up because they're on a winning team that may promote a looser team culture? Or are more players getting caught and dealt with publicly because a budding football program is moving the team closer and closer to the media spotlight?

If the recent scandal serves as a stern warning, this question will no longer be relevant after 2013. If the transgressions continue, then Franklin will raise a few more eyebrows in Nashville, just not in a way that he would ever had hoped for. Fortunately, the team has, for the most part, been strong and decisive with its discipline. These players have been put on blast after this incident, and that will leave no room for tolerance on even minor infractions for James Franklin's players.

The list of suspended and dismissed players at Vanderbilt has been growing, but it's difficult to link that to the rising tide of athletes that are calling Dudley Field home. It's unfair to tie these problems to the recent rise of the program without more data. Of course, the best way to squash any budding relationship between the two is for Franklin to prepare his players for a follow-up to last year's nine-win season while putting together the cleanest, shiniest off-the-field year the school has ever seen.

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