But alas, it wasn't to be. After an injury-plagued fall camp and an unfortunate two-game suspension for key players Jamie Winborn and Jimmy Williams, Vanderbilt stumbled out of the gate and dropped its opener to Miami of Ohio. The 2000 season was filled with week after week of disappointment, and when Vandy finished 3-8, the heat was once again on Widenhofer and his staff.
Their backs against the proverbial wall, Widenhofer and his staff began hitting the recruiting trail as though there were no tomorrow (which, as it turned out, was exactly the case). Widenhofer appointed graduate assistant Rahim (Roc) Batten as recruiting coordinator, and the staff went to work in an attempt to lock up a number of prospects still on the fence.
The results? Vanderbilt's recruiting class of February, 2001 is looking, in retrospect, like the best class of the last ten years-- and certainly one of the best since the dawn of the modern era of recruiting "gurus". That same signing class of 2001 will form the backbone of the 2004 Commodores, and will shape the rapidly approaching season for better or worse.
Allow me a few disclaimers, for those who've not read my previous years' analyses of Vanderbilt recruiting classes. I'm fully aware that football fans are titillated by the recruiting "rankings" issued each year by so-called gurus. Yes, we publish such rankings here on this site every year, and fans love reading them. I for one just don't happen to put much stock in them.
Too many things can happen to recruiting classes. Recruits can fail to qualify. They can get injured, or decide to transfer, or flunk out. Even more commonly, highly ranked players turn out to be busts... or low-ranked players turn out to be diamonds in the rough. For those reasons and more, I never get too excited or depressed about how some "guru" has ranked my team.
On the other hand, I do believe you can look at a class three or four years out, and have some idea how well your coaches recruited. As Vanderbilt's class of 2001 enters its fourth year on campus, we have a pretty good read on how well that class's recruits stack up.
For the record, none of Widenhofer's first four classes would end up with high grades. His first class (1997) included Jimmy Williams and Jared McGrath, but included too many players who never panned out. You could say virtually the same about Woody's second, third and fourth classes-- a few solid SEC players here and there, but never enough in any one class to lift the program to another level.
For Widenhofer, however, the fifth time around may have been the charm. Of the 26 players who signed with Vanderbilt in February, 2001, 20 still remain with the program five years later-- which alone is fairly remarkable, considering the head coaching change that occurred after the 2001 season.
The marquee stars from the class are quarterback Jay Cutler and defensive end Jovan Haye. Both immediately stepped into starting spots in their redshirt freshman season (2002), and both were elected captains last year. Both will contend for first-team All-SEC honors in 2004, and both at this point have the potential to be NFL draftees.
But the legacy of the 2001 class doesn't stop there. Look up and down Vanderbilt's spring depth chart, and you'll find it's dominated by members of Woody's final class.
On offense, Matthew Tant is recognized by scouts as one of the finest college fullbacks in the nation. Sure-handed receiver Brandon Smith, one of the few members of the class of 2001 who didn't redshirt, should pair with junior Erik Davis (a 2002 signee) to make for a formidable pair of wide receivers. Meanwhile Dustin Dunning is a likely candidate to move into the tight end spot vacated by Nick Getter.
On defense, Moses Osemwegie returns as one of the SEC's best outside linebackers; his 126 tackles last season was tops in the league. Starting beside him should be fellow 2001 class member Otis Washington. Though Washington failed to live up to the lofty expectations of some in 2003, one must recall that 2003 was his first season of college football. Both Osemwegie and Washington possess NFL potential.
On the defensive line besides Haye, Trey Holloway and Ralph McKenzie make for an experienced pair of tackles (though it's rumored Holloway could move to center on offense). Both have been yeomen in David Turner's substitution scheme for the last two seasons.
The presence of the class of 2001 is also felt in the secondary, where Dominique Morris and Kelechi Ohanaja should both start once again (Morris for his third straight year, Ohanaja for his second). Cheron Thompson is a capable, experienced nickel-back and backup corner, while class-of-2001 alumni Ronnie Swoopes and Ben Koger provide for a deep corps.
Other members of the class of 2001 who could see the field this fall include Eric Byrum and Marty Morgan (linebacker), Nigel Seaman and Ryan King (offensive line), Paul Meadows (long snapper) and Jason Caldwell (receiver).
In all, as many as 11-12 members of the class of 2001 are likely to earn starting spots for Bobby Johnson's 2004 team. With 21 of 22 starters returning from 2003, and with a two-deep roster dominated by juniors and seniors (at long last), the 2004 Commodores have Vandy fans justifiably excited.
The class of 2001, of course, reported to school too late to save Widenhofer's career. Vandy stumbled through a miserable 2-9 season in 2001, and Widenhofer was forced out in ignominy. He later surfaced as Hal Mumme's defensive coordinator at Southeast Louisiana.
Ironically, however, should this year's Vanderbilt team be the one that restores the school's football fortunes, Widenhofer can at least take comfort in the fact that he left the program with one final, outstanding recruiting class before being forced out.
Next: Where are they now? A closer look at the recruiting class of 2001, and an attempt to identify the four best football recruiting classes in Vanderbilt history.
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