Opening doors for the Dores

Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson, a dead ringer for comedian Steve Martin, delivered a Martin-type wisecrack during the recent SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala.

Asked if last winter's 16-14 defeat of Boston College in the Music City Bowl had allowed the Commodores to broaden their recruiting base, Johnson flashed a smug grin and replied:

"We're pretty much nationwide anyway; I don't know if we can broaden it that much."

That was a good answer from a good coach who now finds himself with a good product to sell. The question is: How many good prospects are going to buy it?

Vanderbilt used to sell recruits on its lofty academic reputation, hoping they'd overlook its football reputation. Obviously, one bowl game in 25 years doesn't reverse that trend but it surely opened some doors for the Dores.

"I think we're better known nationwide now," he said. "Due to the fact that we had a bowl win last year, I think athletically our profile has gone higher."

To his credit, Johnson has never grumbled about the inherent disadvantages of coaching at Vanderbilt - tougher academic standards, the SEC's smallest stadium, just one winning season in 32 years (1976-2007), plus cross-town competition for entertainment dollars and publicity from the NFL's Titans.

If coaching for Vanderbilt is tough, however, recruiting for Vanderbilt is even tougher. Still, Johnson makes no excuses, even though the other 11 SEC schools can sign players Vandy can't.

"We don't really pay attention to who's offered whom, who is winning the battle," he said. "We just go after the players that we really like, who we think fits in our program, and just try to convince them to come to our place."

A lot of the players that Commodore coaches "really like," however, wind up attending other schools because they lack the grades to qualify for admission to Vandy.

"When it comes to recruiting with us, you take the top-tier guys and look at the grades," Commodore center Bradley Vierling noted. "The guys that can't cut it, you can't even look at them. (Vanderbilt recruiters) have to go out there and find that diamond in the rough."

Johnson and his staff have done a pretty good job of that. They found an unheralded quarterback from Christmas, Indiana named Jay Cutler who wound up developing into a first-round NFL Draft pick. They sneaked out of Birmingham, Alabama, with Earl Bennett, who would be a three-time All-SEC selection at wide receiver. They took a chance on an undersized Louisiana offensive lineman named Chris Williams, who added 85 pounds in college and wound up being the 14th player picked in the 2008 NFL Draft.

"We're still going to be in a situation where we have to probably project guys, like we did with Chris Williams," Johnson said. "He came in at 240, goes out at 325, a first-round draft pick. Earl Bennett comes in not heavily recruited, and ends up being the leading receiver in the history of the conference.

"Those things still have to happen. But we're much higher on the food chain right now as far as recruiting is going."


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