Recruiting: Johnson's staff 'shot for the stars'

In retrospect I'd say Vanderbilt's recruiting year had a fantastic beginning, a pretty good middle... and a rather disappointing ending. But perhaps there's a good reason for that.

Another National Signing Day has come and gone, and it's time to ask the $64,000 question: what kind of a class did Vanderbilt sign this year?  Pundits from recruiting sites near and far are lining up to answer that question for you.  Some require a fee; others are willing to share their wisdom with you for free.  (At least, thank goodness, I don't think anyone charges $1.69 a minute over the telephone any more.)

But the ultimate answer, as always, depends on whom you ask.  Jamie Newberg of Border Wars says that Vandy signed "the best class in years," yet he still has the Commodores rated near the bottom of the SEC? Go figure.

As one who watched the entire recruiting year take shape from start to finish... in retrospect I'd say Vanderbilt's year had a fantastic beginning, a pretty good middle... but a rather disappointing ending.

Almost unquestionably the class's two most highly touted prospects were the pair who became the first to make their commitments known: defensive end Marcus Dixon and tight end Jonathan Loyte.  Both committed over the summer.

"Right off the bat we got a big shot in the arm when Loyte and Dixon committed," Head Coach Bobby Johnson told Joe Fisher on the basketball broadcast Wednesday night.  "I think that proved to a lot of people that good football players wanted to come to Vanderbilt."

The early success with Dixon and Loyte got fans pumped up for a banner year, and seemed to give the staff a measure of confidence.  If Johnson & Co. were able to start their year by luring in blue-chippers like these two to Vanderbilt, the logic went... well then, why not a whole class full of them?

For a while there it seemed as though Vandy might be in for a breakthrough signing class.  The staff kept rocking along nicely with some big commitments in November and December, and right into January.  But for the last three weeks leading up to National Signing Day, from roughly Jan. 10 on, most all the news from the recruiting front was bad.

The Commodores lost out on bigtime running backs Micah Andrews (Wake Forest) and Lennox Whitworth (Boston College).  Late pushes to sway Carl Stewart (Auburn) and Syvelle Newton (South Carolina) ultimately failed.  Tom Anevski, thought to be in the fold after a great visit, chose Boston College.  Johnny Edwards, a stud defensive back, stunned the staff by de-committing for Wake Forest.  Vanderbilt did get a last-minute commitment from Evandall Williams-- only to see him sign on signing day with his first love, Central Florida.

OK, you might say Vandy "came in second" with Andre Fluellen.  Vandy beat out Auburn, Alabama and Florida for the services of the big defensive lineman from Cartersville, Ga. who was looking to major in pre-med.  It's not often Vandy beats out Auburn, Alabama and Florida for a player.

Unfortunately, they did not beat out Florida State, and Fluellen signed with the Seminoles.  "When you come in second in recruiting, you might beat out ten other schools, but you've actually tied for last with all the others," Johnson said Wednesday in a guarded reference to Fluellen.  He's right, of course.

What happened?  Johnson's second year started out like a house afire, but the rejections of the last three weeks left a bitter taste.

But something else Johnson said Wednesday night intrigued me.

"We were able to get in a lot of battles, and we won some of them," he said.  "We were trying for the very best players we could find.  There would have been a lot of other ones that we could have gotten committed in December, maybe.  But we were trying for the very best.

"We hung in there, and won some in the end, and lost some in the end.  But that's how recruiting goes."

In essence, he was saying, there are two types of recruits out there-- the blue-chippers, and everybody else.  The blue-chippers can have their pick between any number of schools; the rest sometimes have to lobby and jockey with each other just to garner one legitimate offer from a big school.

The problem with shooting for the blue-chippers is that often they take all their official visits, and wait until the very last minute to decide.  (Good gravy, these days you've got kids who are calling press conferences, announcing on statewide TV, putting on two or three different hats, and all kinds of ridiculous stunts.) 

Consequently, the schools that are bold enough to go after such stars-in-the-making must play along with these recruits' games, at least to some extent.  In the high-stakes loftier tiers of recruiting, as in life, sometimes you win-- and sometimes you end up holding an empty bag.

Take Florida State, for instance.  Bobby Bowden went into signing day with only 14 commitments-- eight less than Vanderbilt-- but with outstanding offers to 15 others (including Fluellen).  Imagine the dilemma if all of them committed!  Turns out only six of them did, but one of them was Ernie Sims, the nation's top-rated prospect.  The finish was enough to give the Seminoles their customary Top Ten ranking.

In Knoxville it was pretty much the same-- the Vols entered signing day waiting on ten or so, landed five of them, and wound up with five Parade All-Americans.  (Vol fans hadn't been that delirious since Shania Twain's first music video.)  Bigtime recruits waited until the last day to make their decisions.  Talk about stress-- how nerve-wracking must that be, to go into signing day with ten or more players on the fence?  Just having one big name out there this year-- Fluellen-- was enough to light up the VandyMania message boards like a Christmas tree.

You see, Vanderbilt fans are just not at all used to that.  Commodore fans are fond of and conditioned to seeing their signing class filled up early, so that signing day is calm and free of surprises.  The only problem with that is... that's not the way the game is played at the highest level.

My thesis is that, even though Vanderbilt ultimately lost out late on several big-name players... the fact that Johnson was in the running for a few during the final weeks is a sign that things are changing for the better.  Better to shoot for the "stars" (i.e., the ones that accompany the blue-chippers' names on recruiting sites) than to fill one's class in December with lesser-talented players who are jockeying for some scholarship, any scholarship.

True, Johnson was left Wednesday with a couple of unfilled scholarships for the 2003 class.  But Johnson's confident determination to pursue the highest caliber of players and stay in the fight with the Florida States to the bitter end ultimately bodes well.  It's a sign that Vandy is no longer willing to settle for leftovers.  It's a sign that Vandy is going to belly up to the bar with the top bananas of the college football world.  Even though Johnson rolled the dice and lost this year, Commodore fans can still rationalize that it's not likely to be that way every year.

"It doesn't do any good to come in second, but I think it does show that our program is attractive to some of the very best high school players," said Johnson.

Put another way: it's better to have "shown the love" to the elites, and lost-- than never to have "shown the love" at all.

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Coming next week: A 2-part interview with Vanderbilt Recruiting Coordinator David Turner Top Stories