ROSWELL, Ga.-- Merritt Kirchoffer signed up for a free college education Wednesday morning.
Oh, it won't really be free of course. The 6-5, 280-pound senior from Roswell, Ga. will have to pay for his education with sweat, toil, and the pressures that come with big-time college football. But Kirchoffer and his parents, on hand for a signing ceremony at Roswell High School on Wednesday, are convinced the tradeoff is a win-win.
"I've told people I'm going to get a ten percent raise when somebody else has to feed Merritt," joked Kirchoffer's father. "I'm looking forward to Vanderbilt and their renowned sports table having to bear that burden for a while."
A conspicuously depleted returning offensive line corps led Head Coach Bobby Johnson to include a total of six offensive linemen (including Kirchoffer) amongst a 2003 signing class of 22. All six are 6-foot-4 or taller. Kirchoffer represents the prototype for the new-age Vanderbilt offensive lineman-- a tall, strong, mobile, well-conditioned man-child with the capability of adding considerably more weight, once exposed to Majid Noori's distinguished cuisine.
Now in the midst of wrestling season, Kirchoffer has purposely let his weight drop to around 277 pounds. Though listed officially by Vanderbilt Media Relations at 280, Kirchoffer told VandyMania that he actually weighed around 290 at the end of football season-- and his high school coach quickly adds that he could easily reach 320 and hold it.
Kirchoffer also moves well for a big man-- he's been timed at 4.87 in the 40-yard dash. He's bench-pressed 420 pounds, and does around 500 in the squat.
Those dimensions led big-name football schools like Tennessee, Nebraska, Florida and Arkansas to come inqiring about Kirchoffer's services. When he made his verbal commitment to Vanderbilt public over the summer, most of the others honored it and backed off. ("Some of them didn't, but I won't say who," he said.)
Like several in his signing class, Kirchoffer was a late bloomer. Perhaps it's a testament to the Johnson staff's ability to identify talent early that Vanderbilt was all over Kirchoffer before his emergence as a high school phenom.
By all accounts Offensive Coordinator Ted Cain, who recruits Georgia relentlessly, did a textbook job of selling Vanderbilt to Kirchoffer. He convinced Kirchoffer to come to Nashville for last year's spring game, where he mixed with players and coaches and instantly felt a connection.
"The campus was beautiful," said Kirchoffer. "The other offensive linemen, I seemed to get along with immediately. We just clicked like we'd been together for a long time."
Kirchoffer was brought on campus again for Johnson's prospects camp in June, and was hooked. He committed in early October.
Asked to name the single most important factor that led him to make an early commitment to the Commodores, Kirchoffer didn't have to think long.
"The coaches," he said. "They were incredible."
The fact that a major university like Vanderbilt might actually award Merritt a scholarship came as something of a shock to his parents. It never dawned on them until late in Merritt's junior year, said his mother, Florence Kirchoffer.
"Merritt didn't play football until the ninth grade," she said. "He was kind of small, not like he is now. Probably by his junior year he started showing potential. By his senior year he knew he wanted to play-- just who, and where was the big question."
"He was an overachiever," added Kirchoffer's coach at Roswell, Tim McFarlin. "When he came out for the team, he wasn't a natural talent-- kind of a pudgy, overweight kid, but he had a real passion for the weight room. He started wrestling about three years ago, and that really helped with his quickness and his agility."
Kirchoffer saw little playing time his junior year, due to an injury and due to the fact that McFarlin had an experienced, senior-dominated offensive line. But Kirchoffer was one of those players who truly blossomed as a senior. "This year he was the anchor for our offensive line," said McFarlin.
"Everything he's gotten this year [postseason honors, scholarship offers], he's earned. He evolved into the best offensive tackle in the region this year. A year ago we weren't sure he was going to be a Division I-A prospect. Because of his size and strength, we knew Division I-AA might be a good fit. The fact that he's going Division I-A is a testament to him."
Asked if Vanderbilt's coaches had addressed redshirting with him, Kirchoffer said the staff told him he would be a strong candidate to play as a true freshman, as Mac Pyle, another Georgian, did last year. After losing starters Jamie Byrum and Jim May to graduation, the Commodores will likely need at least one or two true freshmen to shed their customary redshirts and provide depth.
Kirchoffer refuses to be dissuaded by the fact that Vanderbilt has not had a winning football season since 1982.
"I knew the program was on the uprise," he said. "They used to have some coaches who were pro coaches who weren't really used to recruiting. Now that they have actual college coaches in, I think there'll be a huge difference.
"Bowl game next year... that's what I'm looking forward to."
Coming Friday on VandyMania: An evaluation of Vanderbilt's signing class.
Coming next week: A two-part interview with Vanderbilt Recruiting Coordinator David Turner.
Pictures for VandyMania by Brent Wiseman