It's always an exciting moment when freshmen football players report to campus each fall. There's a buzz in the air as the frosh arrive two or three days before the upperclassmen for orientation and pre-camp workouts.
At long last, the coaches reap the rewards of their recruiting efforts. Rabid fans, always eager to look the new recruits over, hope annually that some raw recruit will be able to step on campus and turn the program around.
History, unfortunately, tells us that that seldom happens. You could probably count on one hand the true freshmen who have truly changed the direction of an SEC program in the last 20 years.
Far be it from me to dampen anyone's enthusiasm, but it's highly unlikely to happen with Vanderbilt's recruiting class of '02 either. According to head coach Bobby Johnson, outside of two kickers and perhaps a running back or receiver here or there, most members of the hastily assembled class of '02 will be redshirted to allow them to mature mentally and physically.
Rather, as fall camp commences, I'd like to suggest that fans re-direct their excitement toward the recruits who signed in 2001, most of whom return as redshirt freshmen this fall. Because they didn't see the field in 2001, fans have a tendency to forget about them. But based on their performance in the spring, the recruiting class of '01 is shaping up as the best of Woody Widenhofer's five years. Unlike the true freshmen, a good number of the redshirt freshmen appear poised to make big contributions this fall.
A little history is in order-- let's go back to the winter of 2000-01. The Commodores had followed up their 5-6 mark in 1999 with a disappointing 3-8 in 2000. As Woody Widenhofer's seat got warmer, it's unknown whether he sent his staff out with an ultimatum to turn things up a notch. But what is known from almost 18 months of hindsight is that a good number of the 26 players from the class that signed in February, 2001 appear to be keepers.
To his credit, Widenhofer redshirted 23 of the 26 players in what turned out to be his final class. The three who saw action in 2001 were Brandon Smith, who proved himself a big-play receiver with excellent speed and hands; Eric Byrum, who saw spot duty at linebacker; and Jason Mathenia, a receiver who has since left the program. The other 23 redshirted.
Of those 23, two enter fall camp projected as starters on defense. Jovan Haye, the beastly defensive end from Fort Lauderdale, appears likely to anchor one end of Bruce Fowler's four-man line; while local product Moses Osemwegie was ultra-impressive in the spring at weakside linebacker. Both could easily turn out to be four-year starters if they avoid injury.
At quarterback, Jay Cutler ran neck-and-neck with junior Benji Walker throughout spring practice. Walker may have a slight edge going into fall camp based on experience, but Johnson has raved recently about how tough the competition is between the pair of bookend signal-callers. The two are so close in ability that it's a good bet Cutler will see a lot of playing time as a redshirt freshman.
Johnson's reconfigured offense will feature a fullback, and high school All-American Matthew Tant is a slight favorite to win that position over walk-on Bara Cola and senior Mike Adam. The former Harpeth High School star's explosive running style may win him some carries at tailback as well.
Receiver is the one position on the team that is, for all practical purposes, stacked-- and at least four members of the class of '01 appear to be in the mix for playing time. Last spring Keith Williams and Jason Caldwell both showed flashes of being the breakaway threat the Commodores have lacked since Tavarus Hogans' graduation. Brandon Smith is back for his sophomore year. And Jerrin Holt from Dallas provides offensive coordinator Ted Cain with a different option-- a big, physical receiver in the mold of a Todd Yoder.
On the offensive line, Nigel Seaman, who has trimmed down to 6-5, 300 pounds, and Ryan King, 6-7, 290, are listed in the depth chart as second-string offensive tackles. Given Vandy's lack of depth in the offensive line, both could see action. Dustin Dunning is in the mix at tight end, though it will be tough for him to unseat senior starter Tom Simone.
Besides receiver, cornerback is the other position where Vanderbilt has the luxury of some genuine quality depth. Kelechi Ohanaja, Cheron Thompson and Dominique Morris are as impressive a trio of young cornerbacks as you'll find. All three appear to have the physical tools to play the position-- all they lack is game experience. At safety, Ronnie Swoopes and Ben Koger will provide depth.
The big concern on the Commodore defense is the front four. From the class of '01, Trey Holloway (6-2, 278) and Ralph McKenzie (6-4, 297) project as defensive tackles of the future. Marty Morgan, a tremendous athlete from Mississippi, has a chance to see some time at linebacker in addition to Osemwegie.
Three members of the class of '01 left Vanderbilt after the coaching change. Mathenia and kicker Lance Garner transferred to Sam Houston State nearer home; and highly touted quarterback David Koral will compete at Santa Monica Community College this fall, in hopes of an eventual return to Division I-A. Of the three, Mathenia, who caught 22 passes for 258 yards last year, will be missed the most-- but in light of last season's upheaval in the coaching staff, the damage from attrition could have been much, much worse.
Yes, the Woody Widenhofer era is over, and the Bobby Johnson era has arrived. But keep an eye this fall on Widenhofer's final recruiting class. It's a class that still has to prove itself in game situations, but one which provides great hope for the future. How it progresses will have a tremendous impact on Vanderbilt's program for years to come.