Vanderbilt added another piece of its 2016 recruiting puzzle on Monday. The Commodores earned a verbal commitment from 6'4", 275 pound defensive tackle Drew Birchmeier to add some bulk to their pass rush.
Birchmeier is the team's second commitment from the state of Virginia. The defensive lineman/tight end turned down offers from East Carolina, Marshall, and Old Dominion to choose Vanderbilt. The Commodores were the junior's only BCS offer, but he was also drawing interest from Duke, Virginia Tech, Tennessee, and Iowa before locking things down with Derek Mason, according to Rivals.com.
Birchmeier's highlight reel shows a powerful pass rusher from the middle of the line who also has soft hands and strong enough coordination to handle duties as a pass-catching tight end. His commitment has the Commodores halfway to their "Select Sixteen" goal. With a roster currently crammed with underclassmen, Vanderbilt only has a limited number of scholarships to offer for 2016. Barring any unexpected departures, that class should only add 16 new players next fall.
So far, that class lacks a four-star gem like Mason has lured to Vanderbilt in years past. He signed Nifae Leolao and Wade Freebeck in 2014 and Kyle Shurmur and Josh Smith in 2015 to keep some of James Franklin's recruiting momentum moving forward. This season he has several players who could move into four-star territory with strong senior seasons - most notably Deuce Wallace, Devin Cochran, and Donaven Tennyson - but they lack the kind of early returns that has turned heads at the major recruiting services.
A look at scholarship offers for Vanderbilt's recruits suggests that the team has gone from battling against SEC and Big Ten powers on a regular basis to target more athletes whose primary offers have come from mid-major schools. Derek Mason is betting that his player development will build a stronger team in Nashville than taking a hit-or-miss approach on top talent. While that strategy is ripe for criticism, a look at the Commodores' recent past suggests it's the right way to go. Three-star (or lower) talent like Zac Stacy, Jordan Matthews, Wesley Johnson, Casey Hayward, and Chase Garnham helped lead this team to their most successful stretch of the modern era. Meanwhile, four-star signees like Jordan Cunningham, Mitch Parsons, and Brian Kimbrow had a limited impact on the team before leaving the program altogether.
That's not to suggest that two-star recruits don't transfer, or four-star players can't be stars in Nashville, or that this recent trend of development is eminently sustainable. However, it does show that team-building has beaten raw talent when it comes to producing wins at Vanderbilt. That's the plan that Mason is hoping will turn around a program that stumbled to 3-9 without a cache of senior leadership in 2014.