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Those Overlooked Recruits: How Two- and Three-Star Recruits Shaped the Commodores in the Past...and How They Stand to Shape the Future

Vanderbilt got a solid recruiting class in Derek Mason's first full cycle, but history shows that it's the two and three-star players who make a difference in Nashville. So who will step up for the Commodores and lead this team into a new era?

Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Between 2012 and 2013, Vanderbilt football won 18 games and brought a pair of bowl trophies back to Nashville. And they did it on the backs of unheralded three-star recruits.

For all the hype that James Franklin's recruiting brought to Nashville, the success he gleaned off the field came primarily from the overlooked and underrated players he inherited from Bobby Johnson and Robbie Caldwell. Those upperclassmen fed off the emerging coach's energy to bring Vandy to three straight bowl games while reversing six decades worth of momentum that had relegated the Commodores to the basement of the SEC. Players like Jordan Matthews, Archibald Barnes, and Chase Garnham shook off low ratings as high school athletes to help lead Vanderbilt back to respectability in the NCAA's toughest football conference.

Here's a look at how those ratings broke down for the team's starters in 2012 and 2013. Vanderbilt finished 9-4 in both seasons and won nine conference games over that span.

Pos. Player Rivals Rating ESPN Rating
QB Jordan Rodgers 5.7 NR
Austyn Carta-Samuels 5.6 74
RB Zac Stacy 5.6 76
Jerron Seymour 5.5 74
Brian Kimbrow 5.8 80
WR Jordan Matthews 5.5 74
Chris Boyd 5.5 74
Jonathan Krause 5.5 76
TE Steven Scheu 5.5 76
Kris Kentera 5.4 NR
OL Wesley Johnson 5.7 78
Jake Bernstein 5.5 77
Joe Townsend 5.3 NR
Spencer Pulley 5.5 74
Andrew Jelks 5.8 78
Ryan Seymour 5.2 75
Josh Jelesky 5.4 NR
Andrew Bridges 5.5 75
DE Johnell Thomas 5.2 NR
Walker May 5.2 75
Caleb Azubike 5.8 77
Kyle Woestmann 5.7 77
DT Rob Lohr 5.4 NR
Jared Morse 5.6 77
Adam Butler 5.7 78
Colt Nichter 5.2 75
LB Chase Garnham 5.4 NR
Archibald Barnes 5.1 NR
Karl Butler 5.6 75
Darreon Herring 5.7 79
CB Andre Hal 5.6 75
Steven Clarke 5.4 NR
Trey Wilson 5.6 75
S Javon Marshall 5.2 74
Kenny Ladler 5.7 78
Average: 5.50 76
Low 3-star Low/Mid 3-star

Rivals has the average Vandy starter from 2012-13 as a low three-star recruit. ESPN is a bit more generous, but that's because the unrated players were excluded from the team's average. A closer look at the numbers tell us what most Vanderbilt fans already knew - some of the best Commodores of the modern era were totally unheralded recruits.

The best running back in school history, Zac Stacy, was a middling three-star prospect whose only other major scholarship offer came from UAB. The best wide receiver in school history, Jordan Matthews, got a two-star grade from ESPN - something he kept in his Twitter bio up until this year. That's still better than Jordan Rodgers, however. The worldwide leader couldn't even be bothered to evaluate him in junior college despite his NFL bloodlines.

If you look beyond the headliners you'll find a stockpile of valuable contributors that couldn't even get a second look from FBS programs. Archibald Barnes barely even got a recruiting profile but developed into the captain of an NCAA top 20 defense. His running mate was inside/outside do-it-all linebacker Chase Garnham - another guy who barely showed up on any service's radar before he committed to Vandy. Javon Marshall, Ryan Seymour, Colt Nichter, Johnell Thomas, and Walker May all got lazy two-star ratings before becoming valued members of a team that went 9-7 in SEC play.

So what's the point here? Take a look at this breakdown of Derek Mason's first full recruiting class at Vanderbilt:

Pos. Player Rivals Rating ESPN Rating
DE/OLB Nehemiah Mitchell 5.7 78
TE Sam Dobbs 5.6 75
OL Jared Southers 5.6 73
QB Kyle Shurmur 5.8 83
WR Jared Pinkney 5.6 78
ILB Josh Smith 5.9 81
S Andrew Rector 5.4 74
OL Ean Pfeifer 5.4 76
OLB Dare Odeyingbo 5.6 77
ILB/RB Jay Hockaday 5.4 NR
ILB Jordan Griffin 5.7 75
RB Josh Crawford 5.5 75
OL Justin Skule 5.5 73
CB Donovan Sheffield 5.8 80
OL Darion DeBrossard 5.5 73
TE Kyle Anderton 5.4 77
RB Jaire George 5.4 NR
OLB Caleb Peart 5.6 79
Average: 5.58 76.69

That's a class with a little more cream at the top and a lot of system players who are a solid coach away from developing into SEC starters. Smith, Shurmur, and Sheffield are the headliners of this class, but history suggests that Vanderbilt will be relying on players like Skule, Crawford, and Pinkney just as much by the time 2018 rolls around. It won't happen right away - many of Mason's recruits will need time to adjust to new full-time positions in his and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig's schemes - but the foundation for a return to the postseason just got stronger on National Signing Day.

Those 2012 and 2013 starters came to Vanderbilt in an era where the Commodores had only one winning season in the past 30 years. They'd witnessed a sole bowl victory where the team's punter (punter!) was named MVP. But they understood how they fit at Vanderbilt, and they took advantage of every opportunity they had to reverse that tide and bring this team back to the upper levels of the SEC. Now, Derek Mason's 3-9 squad will have the same chance.

The Commodores won't win many accolades today. They'll finish 14th in the SEC and hover somewhere around the national top 50 in the recruiting rankings. Fortunately, Vanderbilt's history shows that ratings and rankings don't matter nearly as much as finding talent that fits and making the most with what you have. With the Class of 2015 in the books, Derek Mason now has to focus on creating his own Jordan Matthewses, Zac Stacys, and Chase Garnhams for a new generation of Vanderbilt football.