There’s not much that’s flashy with Vanderbilt’s recruiting, especially in comparison to schools around the SEC and across the country.
Vanderbilt is ranked last in the SEC in this year’s recruiting class by the analysts at 247Sports, which is no surprise after Wednesday’s first day of Early Signing Period. In fact, the only real surprises for the Commodores in recent years are when they’re not No. 14 in the SEC. A couple of times they were No. 12. Nationally, head coach Derek Mason’s program is ranked just inside the top 50. Again, another accomplishment after more than a couple of appearances outside of the top 50.
But Vanderbilt’s method is working better than the rankings would indicate because the Commodores are preparing for their second bowl appearance in three seasons.
Here are five takeaways from the initial signings for the 2019 class:
1. An outside-the-state recruiting philosophy
The top player from Tennessee in Vanderbilt’s class is ATH Devin Boddie, who is ranked No. 26 in the state. Overall, the class comes from nine different states and the District of Columbia, which is where two came from. It wasn’t as pronounced last year as Vanderbilt got two of the top 10 players in the state. But two years ago, the Commodores didn’t get any of the top 50.
One late addition that appears to be a solid pickup is RB Keyon Brooks from Georgia. The 6-foot-1, 195-pounder is a long strider and capable of production as he had 3,659 career yards and 36 TDs in his career at Kennesaw Mountain High.
2. 3-stars will continue for the foreseeable future
None of Wednesday’s signees were rated more than 3-star recruits, which also fits the recent mold of Mason’s recruiting trend. Last year, there were 18 3-stars in a class of 21 players. In 2017, all 20 players were less than 4-stars.
Trying to find a diamond in the rough? There are more than a few examples of 3-star prospects panning out for Vanderbilt. Jared Pinkney, current NFL player Trent Sherfield, Kalija Lipscomb and Khari Blasingame, who moved from linebacker to running back, are just a few of the players who grew into starters after being overlooked by recruiting services. Even Bruno Reagan, who has started 39 consecutive games on the offensive line, initially was viewed as a defensive lineman by former coach James Franklin’s staff.
One notable defensive tackle in this class to fill Vandy’s 3-4 defense is Daevion Davis, who also had offers from Ole Miss and Missouri. The 6-2, 300-pounder had 19 sacks and 42 tackles in high school in Madison, Ala.
3. Thin offensive line a focus
With at least four signees on the offensive line, it is evident that the staff made that unit a focus. The coaches are trying to fill the void left by several expected departures, including graduate transfer Jared Southers. With a late push, Vanderbilt got two commitments from OL prospects in December. They look to combine that group with the likes of rising junior Braden Kopp, currently listed as a tight end, or current true freshman Tyler Steen, who’s on the defensive line for now. But this is another position where Vanderbilt could add another commit or two before February, but those signings might be less likely to offer immediate help.
Speaking of stars, or lack thereof, Donald Fitzgerald might be a name to remember in a couple of years. Fitzgerald, 6-9 and 280 pounds, is a Nigeria native who just finished his first season of football. When he committed, he didn’t have a single star. The next day, he was ranked the state’s 49th-best prospect with 3 stars by 247Sports. He was just the fourth Tennessean to join the class.
4. Defensive back depth
Mason tends to prefer to have a lot of defensive back depth, and he signed at least five to that position so far.
If even some of them pan out like Los Angeles native LaDarius Wiley, a 2014 3-star wide receiver, he would be happy. Mason recruited Wiley to convert to safety at the college level, especially in his defensive scheme. Wiley is third on the team in tackles, and started every game at safety this season.
As the calendar flips toward February, look for Vandy to add another linebacker or defensive back.
5. A bumper crop of tight ends
Why so many tight ends? With three more in this class, there are expected to be five tight ends on scholarship next season: Holdovers Gavin Schoenwald, Ben Bresnahan and Braden Kopp, plus signees Joel DeCoursey and Justin Ball and commit Jeffrey Blake. Perhaps the coaching staff is banking on versatility to fill holes as some of these players could shift to the offensive line in a pinch.
It helps to have NFL prospect Jared Pinkney, a redshirt junior in 2018, in the program. Ball (6-6, 230) and DeCoursey (6-5, 220) certainly have the measurables to fit into the SEC.