The ESPNU Top 25 team recruiting rankings made their debut last Friday, and for the most part, they featured your usual suspects. Texas stands at No. 1, followed by Florida State and Alabama, respectively.
Sounds a little familiar, doesn't it?
But there are some surprises. For instance, Texas A&M checks in at No. 4 and TCU lands at No. 10. The Aggies are building off their finish last year, while the Horned Frogs are gaining momentum from entering the Big East Conference.
There is no bigger surprise inside the ESPNU Top 25 than Vanderbilt. Yes, the Commodores are No. 24. That speaks volumes for the job James Franklin and his staff have done in their short tenure in Nashville. Despite being in the middle of a region where recruiting is a bloodbath, Franklin loves the challenge, and he believes he has developed a wonderful sales pitch.
"Vanderbilt is an unbelievable thing to sell," Franklin said. "You can get a world-class education that lasts 40-50 years, not just the next four. We are not about a logo or a jersey. Vanderbilt has your best interest. You also get an opportunity to play in the SEC and in a great town like Nashville. Then we are looking for kids that can make an early impact on our program. So we have four things we push: academics, the SEC, Nashville and playing time. That's our message, and it is very well received with kids, coaches and parents."
Thinking back to this past February, we should have seen this coming, as Franklin and his staff quietly had one of the best closing finishes of any BCS program in the nation. That story got lost in the SEC recruiting shuffle. Vandy closed with some big name prospects like quarterback Josh Grady (Seffner, Fla./Armwood), athlete Lafonte Thourogood (Virginia Beach, Va./Ocean Lakes), tight end Dillon van der Wal (Westlake Village, Calif./Oaks Christian) and defensive end Barron Dixon (Alpharetta, Ga./Chattahoochee). These all came in the final days through signing day, allowing Franklin to have a great close to his very first class, especially considering the circumstances.
"Last year we had about a month and a half to put it together and show everyone our vision," Franklin said. "In a very short period, we were able to establish relationships and trust with kids, coaches and parents. We saw some success and it gave our entire staff a lot of confidence moving forward. We are all excited and passionate about what we are trying to accomplish."
One of the Commodores' 2011 signees was Grady, one of the top recruits from the Tampa Bay area. Honestly, Vandy came out of nowhere to land this talented athlete.
"Vanderbilt really didn't start to recruit me until there was about two weeks left before signing day," Grady said. "My parents were sold because of the academics, but the football side took some time. I needed to meet Coach Franklin and his staff. Then I saw it, saw his vision and got a great vibe for the program. Coach Franklin has proven guys in unproven territory. Vanderbilt is the perfect place and Nashville is one of the greatest places to live. You get an Ivy League education and play SEC football. Now we have to go out and get the players. The sky's the limit for this thing."
The Commodores 2011 momentum carried into this recruiting season. While they are not sitting on double-digit commitments, what they have are six quality prospects headed their way, headlined by defensive end Stephen Weatherly (Atlanta/North Atlanta) and linebackers Jacob Sealand (Tucker, Ga./Tucker) and Darron Herring (Stone Mountain, Ga./Stephenson). In fact, five of their pledges are from the Peach State.
"We are excited about the progress we are already making," Franklin said. "We just have to target the right kids. We don't have to beat everyone in the SEC for kids, but we have to win one or two battles against each school. And this season we must show progress and that it's not all just talk and that we are really headed in the right direction. It's a process that's not over until Feb. 3."
Certainly not many expected Vanderbilt to make their way into the top 25, but everyone expects Florida and Miami to find their place among college football's finest recruiting classes. The Gators and Hurricanes find themselves in a state of coaching transition, just like the Commodores. And like Vandy, Florida and Miami are off to great starts to their 2012 recruiting campaigns, currently Nos. 5 and 8, respectively.
"The reception has been amazing," said Florida coach Will Muschamp. "But this is Florida and Florida is a great school with a great campus and tons of tradition. The Gators have won three national championships, and there are just so many positives. I know one thing: I have always been a very good recruiter when I have this many resources. The key to me is evaluations and taking the right guys."
While Muschamp raves about his early time in Gainesville, it seems as though new Miami coach Al Golden and his staff have had to work a little harder. Perhaps they had some fences to mend, especially in the fertile grounds of their backyard of South Florida. According to recruiting coordinator Brennan Carroll though, things are now coming together just fine.
"The coaches and kids were tentative initially, but they are all starting to come around," Carroll said. "They are getting to know us, our philosophy and how we do things now. It's different than the past."
The Gators are sitting on a dozen commitments, including five ESPNU 150 members - offensive tackles Jessamen Dunker (Boynton Beach, Fla./Boynton Beach) and Omari Phillips (Venice, Fla./Venice), tight end Colin Thompson (Warminster, Pa./Archbishop Wood), wide receiver LaTroy Pittman (Citra, Fla./North Marion) and cornerback Brian Poole (Bradenton, Fla./Southeast). For Muschamp, these rankings don't matter. You just have to believe and trust what you see.
"It goes back to [Nick] Saban and identifying all the factors that are important in evaluating," Muschamp said. "I also take some stuff I learned when I was with the Miami Dolphins and preparing for a draft. You want players to fit your scheme and your system. You shouldn't fall in love with the film. Get out there, talk with coaches and everyone to make sure. Really evaluate the things that make a good player great."
A big plus for Florida is also their coaching experience, with guys like offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and defensive coordinator Dan Quinn and their NFL expertise.
"The fact is if Charlie Weis wasn't there, they may not have even offered me," said Thompson, the nation's top tight end prospect. "He has been a big influence on me. How can you say no to Charlie Weis? He has intangibles, and I have nothing but great things to say about him. He will succeed there and there are no excuses for Florida because he's their offensive coordinator."
Like the Gators, the Canes are off to a terrific start. Miami and Golden now have 15 commitments, including five from ESPNU 150 members – wide receiver Angelo Jean-Louis (West Palm Beach, Fla./Central), athlete Duke Johnson (Miami/Norland), cornerback Amos Leggett (Homestead, Fla./Homestead), quarterback Preston Dewey (Austin, Texas/St. Andrews) and linebacker Raphael Kirby (Stone Mountain, Ga./Stephenson).
"Our approach is to take care of our home base, our backyard," Carroll said. "That is and will always be rule No. 1 with the Hurricanes. We will also spot recruit positions of need and we will scour the earth to do so. We are more spread out now until we get back to even in our numbers. Our guys are really grinding and they were great in the spring. At the end of the day our goal is to go get smart and tough football players."
One of the Hurricanes' top commitments is the electrifying Duke Johnson.
"There are a few differences between the staffs that I have already noticed," Johnson said. "I noticed last year if a player already committed, they let you go. With this staff, if they want you, they will come after you. It doesn't matter if you committed to another school or not. I also see more Miami coaches this season coming to the school compared to the previous season. This staff works really hard and they will work you really hard. They are also giving everyone equal opportunity to play."
Despite the very good starts to this recruiting campaign for the new staffs at Vanderbilt, Florida and Miami, no one has played a down.
"We haven't been able to show our brand of football yet," Carroll said. "Until we do, there's a little mystery with our team. It's important that we play well."
Champs off to fast start
Auburn is off to a huge start with its 2012 recruiting class, already with 10 commitments. Over its last two classes combined, it had only a dozen commitments at this point.
The Tigers have landed seven since the last week in May. Sure, they had their Big Cat Weekend over Memorial Day, where most of their top targets were in attendance. But there's also been a slight change in recruiting philosophy. The national champs are more aggressive now in the middle stages of recruiting, rather than turning it on hard at the end stage like the last few years. They were big closers before, but there's more focus in getting things done now.
Auburn is taking advantage of coming off winning the national title. Teams that do this typically get the biggest recruiting bump the following season, which is this class for Gene Chizik and his Tigers. Numbers now mean slightly less worry later, especially with the cap now at a hard 25.
The state of Georgia has always been a place where most teams in college football have recruited. It has been a feeder state for the SEC, ACC and many other leagues. But this season, the Peach State is on fire. 35 prospects who call the state of Georgia home have already committed to SEC schools. The SEC collectively has 101 commitments. That means just fewer than 35 percent of the committed players from the SEC are from the state of Georgia. At this pace, if each team in this league signed 22, the state of Georgia would produce 92 kids for SEC schools. That's amazing.
While Georgia is considered one of the top football-producing states, it still trails Florida. But not this year, at least not so far. The Sunshine State has produced only 11 SEC commitments to date. If you look at the ACC numbers, Florida has 22 commitments, while Georgia has 10.
I can't see how the Peach State can keep this pace. Nonetheless, the early numbers are extraordinary.