Biggest Needs: The Commodores lose nine total starters from 2012’s historic and overachieving team. Four of them lie on offense, and the biggest is running back Zac Stacy. Stacy has been the heart and soul of this Commodore attack the last two years and the one guy James Franklin and his staff could lean on to take the brutal punishment in the SEC, posting back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. The other three of note are quarterback Jordan Rodgers and offensive linemen Ryan Seymour and Josh Jelesky. But Rodgers’ vacancy would be bigger if Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd weren’t returning, and the offensive line should be the immediate issue.
The Commodores also lose five starters on defense, and these five are much more important than the offenses’ four. Three of the five lie on the defensive line in Johnell Thomas, Rob Lohr and Colt Nichter. Lohr has been a staple on the Dores’ defense over the past four years, and it’s not only Lohr’s play-making ability that’s tough to replace, but it’s the experience and leadership as well. Linebacker Archibald Barnes and corner Trey Wilson leave two big holes, too. Barnes, like Lohr, has been so valuable, and when you combine his leadership with Wilson’s ability at corner, it creates immediate needs.
Needs Met: The Commodores started off by landing one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the country in early enrollee Johnathan McCrary. McCrary might not start as a freshman, but he held this class together from the start and will be a future star. To go along with McCrary, the Commodores signed five wide receivers and three tight ends. Tight end Brandon Vandenburg is the one to watch to make an immediate impact, and Latevius Rayford has the most upside and potential of any of the receivers. The one big need that must be addressed in next year’s class is the offensive line. The Commodores only signed two in this year’s class, led by early enrollee and California native Sean Dowling.
Even though the Commodores are losing three defensive linemen, including both tackles, they only signed one tackle in Jay Woods. Defensive end Landon Stokes headlines three signees and has the most NFL potential in the future simply because of his massive 6-4 frame. I expect the lack of depth at tackle to be a main selling point for 2014. The Commodores had a rather strong class at linebacker for only three signees, headlined by Zach Cunningham and Nigel Bowden. Cunningham will play on the outside and has an electric film, while the 6-1, 230-pound Bowden will anchor the middle in the future. The secondary has been the backbone to the overachieving defense the past two years, and it’s going to get even stronger with this year’s five signees. This group is led by fan-favorite Tre Bell. At this rate, Vandy could sign a water boy and turn him into a good defensive back.
Biggest Get: While I think Brandon Vandenburg will make an immediate impact on offense, the biggest signee is four-star defensive tackle Jay Woods. The 6-3, 280-pounder will be in the tackle rotation against Ole Miss week one next season. He’s that good, and Vandy needs tackles that bad.
Biggest Miss: Five-star safety Leon McQuay was close to signing with the Commodores, but the biggest miss was running back Johnathan Ford. One player certainly doesn’t make a class, and his loss won’t necessarily be felt in 2013. However, it will be starting in 2014. But credit Franklin for rebounding with underrated signee Rapheal Webb.
Final Evaluation: The Commodores are coming off a historic season backed by the SEC brand, and they are taking full advantage of it. It’s the Commodores best signing class to date. With that being said, I was both encouraged and disappointed with the class. On one hand, Franklin and his staff have done an amazing job selling the Vanderbilt brand to skill position players, but they still haven’t signed a marquee class in the trenches yet. And if Franklin is serious about competing for championships, it has to start up front. Offensive and defensive linemen will be the biggest priority for 2014 class. If the Commodores landed this class three to five years ago, we’d be singing Bobby Johnson’s praises for overachieving. Instead, we’re criticizing for the lack of trench players to compete for the East crown, because the Commodores have earned that right.
Final Grade: B-
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