Commentary

Vandy's becoming a force in the SEC

Originally Published: July 15, 2009
By Jc Shurburtt | Scouts Inc.

Vanderbilt had a breakthrough season last year and reached its first bowl game since 1982. That on-field momentum, combined with a coaching staff that has been in place for eight years, has the Commodores on track for one of their most highly regarded recruiting classes in years.

Vanderbilt has 14 commitments from the 2010 class, many of whom had scholarship offers from other Southeastern Conference programs, in some cases those from their own state. The Commodores beat out Georgia for defensive lineman Kyle Woestmann (Marietta, Ga./Walton) and South Carolina for offensive lineman Logan Stewart (Boiling Springs, S.C./Boiling Springs).

Since there has been coverage of recruiting, the Commodores have never been successful winning this many of these types of battles.

[+] EnlargeBobby Johnson
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesBobby Johnson is turning a lot of heads in the SEC by turning Vanderbilt into more than an academic university.

The reasons Vanderbilt is a hot sell are plentiful, but must start with head coach Bobby Johnson and his staff. It's literally the first thing prospects mention when they talk about the Commodores. Recruiting is all about relationships, so longevity can pay off big for a coaching staff. That's what has made every program from Bear Bryant's Bama to Pete Carroll's USC successful on the recruiting trail.

"I wanted to go somewhere and do something special," said Woestmann, whom one SEC assistant described as one of the "toughest players he had seen on film."

"I am not saying that I could not have played at Georgia," Woestmann said. "I've grown up in Atlanta and I love Georgia to death, but I feel like I have a chance to come in and play as a true freshman, if I don't have to redshirt and get bigger [at Vanderbilt]. If I do redshirt, I can be a four-year starter there. Bobby Johnson and the entire staff up there are some of the finest in the nation. It's the perfect combination of academics and football."

Stewart cited Nashville, the academics and the coaching staff -- particularly veteran offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell, who was his recruiter -- as the reasons he is heading to Vandy.

"I think [Caldwell] is one of the best offensive line coaches," Stewart said. "I got a chance to work with him, and he is a good coach. I think I will learn a lot from him."

Seven of Johnson's nine assistants have been with him since his first year at Vanderbilt in 2002. One of those coaches is Warren Belin, the Commodores' linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator. He played at Wake Forest and coached at SMU and William & Mary before heading to Nashville, and knows the unique recruiting challenges for schools with high academic standards, like Vanderbilt.

"There are enough student-athletes out there that are interested enough in what we have to offer that you can do it," Belin said. "We believe Vanderbilt has a lot to sell and really sells itself. The city of Nashville is a great city. It's a dynamic and progressive city, but it never loses that hometown feel. Vanderbilt as a university speaks for itself. It's a top 20-ranked school. The academics are a little tougher, but we've had guys go on to the NFL from here who have also left with a Vanderbilt degree."

Vanderbilt has been particularly successful in Georgia, drawing nine of its 15 commits from that state. In fact, offensive coordinator Ted Cain has signed five out of the Atlanta metro area, which is nothing new, because Johnson and Cain also recruited the Atlanta area and all of North Georgia hard when they worked together at FCS school Furman.

"The state of Georgia has been good to us," Belin said. "A lot of coaches on our own staff already had relationships with high school coaches in that state before they came here, and they have developed them here. The student-athletes in that state get to see a program that's on the rise in the Southeastern Conference. As a staff, we do a great job there, and will continue to do a great job there."

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
Jerry Lai/US PresswireBefore he tore it up in Denver and was traded to Chicago, Jay Cutler was slinging passes for Vanderbilt.

Belin said last year's season has helped get the attention of some prospects that otherwise might not have taken the time to investigate Vandy.

In 2008, Vanderbilt was one of the early storylines in college football, getting off to a 5-0 start. The Commodores finished 7-6 and beat Boston College in the Music City Bowl. It was the payoff to a building process six years in the making for Johnson and his staff. In the previous six seasons Vanderbilt had gone 20-50 overall and 8-40 in the SEC.

However, there were signs of life before last season. Nobody will forget the thrilling 49-42 double-overtime loss to Florida in The Swamp in 2005. That year, the Commodores also won at Tennessee 28-24. The next season, Vanderbilt won at Georgia 24-22 and in 2007 knocked off a sixth-ranked South Carolina team 17-6 in Columbia.

Last season's postseason appearance was the first breakthrough, but Belin said the focus is now on taking it a step further.

"[Johnson] as our leader has done a great job of selling this program. We are now competitive in the SEC. Going to the bowl game and us getting off to the start [5-0] that we did last year and being on TV as many times as we were helped. The patience of this coaching staff paid off big, and we went 7-6. But by no means is this where Coach Johnson envisions us being. He wants us to take another step. He wants us to continue to go to bowl games."

Taking that next step begins with this recruiting class, which is nowhere near complete and could land several more talented players before all is said and done, including speedy athlete Bradley Roby (Suwanee, Ga./Peachtree Ridge). The 6-foot-1, 175-pounder has Vanderbilt strongly in the mix for his services.

"It's a really great school with great academics," he said. "It also has a tremendous family atmosphere, and it makes me feel like I'm at home when I go there."

Vanderbilt's success is part of a recent trend in college football in which longtime "academic" schools have gotten up off the mat and become contenders. It also shows that today's student-athlete cares more about academics than ever before.

The Leaderboard

The Elite 11 field was announced earlier this week and gets under way next week in Southern California. The event features many of the nation's top quarterback prospects. Here's a look at the six states that have produced the most Elite 11 quarterback prospects during the 12 years of the event.

Michigan vaulted into a tie for fifth this season with three prospects named to the event, including Michigan commit Devin Gardner (Inkster, Mich./Inkster), Michigan State commit Joe Boisture (Saline, Mich./Saline) and Penn State commit Robert Bolden (Detroit/Saint Mary's Prep).

With Alabama commit Phillip Sims (Chesapeake, Va./Oscar Smith) named to this year's field, Virginia maintained its spot just behind the big three states of California (which has more than twice as many selections as any other state), Florida and Texas.

Coast-to-coast notes

The next Jammer?

The next great corner from the state of Texas could be Leroy Scott (Pasadena, Texas/South Houston). The 5-10, 190-pounder reportedly impressed at Texas' prospect camp earlier this summer and is high on the Longhorns' board.

The buzz around the Texas 7-on-7 state championship last week (Scott wasn't there) was that he could potentially be as good as former Longhorns cornerback and current San Diego Charger Quentin Jammer.

The next Franks?

Class of 2011 tight end Drew Owens (Charlotte, N.C./Ardrey Kell) has early offers from Vanderbilt and South Carolina. Owens grew up a North Carolina fan and said the Tar Heels have started recruiting him as well.

"They tell me they are going to be watching me this season and that I remind them of Bubba Franks," he said.

Audibles
Iowa got a big pickup this week with the commitment of Andrew Donnal (Whitehouse, Ohio/Anthony Wayne). Offensive line coach Reese Morgan -- one of the best in the business, and a native of Iowa -- continues to piece together class after class of players that can develop into great ones in Iowa City, and Donnal has the raw tools to do that. … Athlete Victor Beasley (Adairsville, Ga./Adairsville) likes Clemson, Alabama and Auburn, but has no leader.

JC Shurburtt covers recruiting for ESPN.com. He can be reached at jcsespn@aol.com.

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