SEC East Recruiting Breakdown: Will Vandy’s Hot Streak Continue?

This is the second installment in a two-part series focused on SEC recruiting evaluations at the midway point of the 2012 cycle. The teams are listed alphabetically. Refer to our Mid-Year Rankings for the full list of teams 1-12. Yesterday’s SEC West analysis is here.

Florida

Will Muschamp’s first full recruiting class at Florida is shaping up nicely with a bevy of stars from throughout the Sunshine State and Southeast. Florida’s classes always include talent from across the country, but one key ingredient to the Gators’ success over the past decade has been their ability to recruit well at home and in nearby, talent-rich Georgia. With 16 commits already in the fold the momentum is strong for the new staff, and like many other teams, their gain has in some cases been at Georgia’s expense. As is the case with most new coaching regimes, expect Florida to try to sign a maximum number of players in this year’s class and the next one, as well. There’s always natural attrition early in the process – even more so when a new staff brings in a brand new offensive philosophy that causes a major shift in how personnel is used. Look for Florida to load up on skill players who fit in well with Charlie Weis’ pro-style offense (like jumbo back Matt Jones) and Muschamp’s aggressive, attacking defense (elite DB Brian Poole and Dante Phillips, a dynamic defensive lineman who could project at multiple positions up front.)

Upside:

Playing time and a fresh start. Other coaches in the SEC like Nick Saban and Gene Chizik have enjoyed immense recruiting success because of their willingness to recruit top talent and get those players on the field early. With the major pattern shift that’s occurred in Gainesville, the lure of immediate opportunity is there in a state that already produces more elite talent than anywhere else in the country. All of the ingredients are there for Muschamp to keep the train rolling along. Elite defensive players like Antonio Morrison and Jordan Jenkins are high on the Gators.
 

Downside:

Enemies in the state. Florida State is recruiting as well as anyone in the country right now, and they’ve already taken a player or two that the Gators really wanted (Dante Fowler comes to mind). The Noles have arguably as much going for them right now as any program in America, and with a year’s head start, Jimbo Fisher has already built in-roads that will cause Florida to have some sleepless nights. Combine their efficiency with Miami’s new staff and a trifecta of SEC West teams burning up the roads into Florida and Georgia, and the Gators have some serious recruiting battles on their hands.
 

Star of the Class:

This could change if a guy like Jenkins commits, but for now it all starts up front on the offensive line with Jessamen Dunker. Not only does he have a ridiculously great name, but he’s got great size and footwork to go with it. Anytime a new staff comes in, it’s a real benefit if they can build their first few classes around star OLs. Standing a legit 6’5 and weighing in at more than 300 pounds, Dunker is big without being “too big.” He should come in ready to contribute without having to shed too much bad weight.

Georgia –

If last year’s recruiting class was extremely pivotal for Mark Richt (and it was), this year’s might be his Waterloo as his seat warms and rival teams continue to try to raid the state for talent. The state of Georgia produced one of its best classes in decades in 2011, and Richt did a serviceable if not above average job of assembling the “Dream Team” that he pitched to recruits. Keeping Isaiah Crowell at home proved to be a necessity, as UGA has seen its depth at RB dwindle to near nothing before the start of the season. If last year’s group was similar to the Dream Team of US Olympic basketball fame, then the 2012 group might be the “Dream Team II” following the same analogy. In other words – maybe not the same names or national acclaim, but a talented and able group nonetheless. There’s no shortage of talent on hand nearby, and UGA has already received verbals from explosive linemen like Jonathan Taylor and Leonard Floyd. The challenge for Richt may be as significant on the field this year as on the recruiting trail. The Dawgs need to have success on Saturdays this fall to buy time for the staff to load up again. If that happens, the 2011/12 groups might lead a revival of Georgia football under Richt after a few disappointing years. If not, it might signal the end of an era and open the floodgates even wider for other teams to come in and cherrypick the Peach State.

Upside:

Talent, talent, talent. If Georgia can just keep its best players from leaving the state, they’ll be in fine shape recruiting-wise. There’s enough talent in Georgia to live on, for now. The key is keeping it there.
 

Downside:

Richt’s ever-warming seat and rival teams like Florida and Alabama who have set up summer homes throughout Georgia. It’s no secret by now that, pardon the awful pun, the top dog’s leash is getting shorter. Other coaches are using subpar seasons and growing doubt against Georgia, and the idea of going somewhere else has become attractive to a lot of local players. Factor in opposing coaches like Kirby Smart, Jimbo Fisher, Derek Dooley and Will Mushamp who all have strong ties to the state, and it makes for a precarious situation when so many other coaches have success in your backyard without letting you into theirs.
 

Star of the Class:

It’s not been a completely one-sided talent raid where UGA is concerned. They did land one huge recruit (literally) out of Florida that the Gators really wanted – John Theus. A massive tackle who can anchor an offensive front, Theus is a “franchise” type player whose commitment can turn a program around.

Kentucky –

A trio of players committed to UK on Aug. 2 to help bolster what had been a disappointing class. There’s still not a whole lot there, but the new additions at least signaled some positive momentum for the Wildcats. Kentucky’s a tough sell, but they’ve done a decent job of spreading the net to other states to find talent that they can develop. This one’s nothing to write home about on paper, but there’s still time left. The good news is, a few of their divisional rivals have question marks of their own. Kentucky landed twin brothers out of the Atlanta area – Zack and Daron Blaylock – who may be the defensive backfield of the future.

Upside:

One school of thought: the only direction to go from here is up. Plus, basketball season is right around the corner.
 

Downside:

If there were more scholarships left to offer, we might hold out more hope. There’s still time and a few spots left, and we have to assume that Kentucky will close this class out better than it started, but there’s just not a lot of quality left out there for Joker Phillips to pick from. Zeke Pike, one of the nation’s top prospects and a local product, never seriously considered Kentucky.
 

Star of the Class:

Tie between Thomas Chapman, a nice defensive line prospect from Louisville, and Patrick Towles, a big, strong QB who really fits the mold of Kentucky passers of the past few years.

Tennessee –

Derek Dooley’s second full class isn’t much more impressive than the first, so far, and there are some serious concerns mounting about this staff’s ability to recruit with the class of the SEC. Nobody doubts that UT is a “big boy” program in the conference, but they’re simply not recruiting like one. Dooley walked into a buzzsaw with so many other teams in the region already recruiting at such a high level. It’s going to take time to rebuild the mess that Lane Kiffin left, as much from a perception and PR standpoint as a fundamental one, and it’s imperative that Tennessee fans be patient. If they’re not, Dooley might turn into the next Mike Shula or David Cutcliffe – a scapegoat victim of an unrealistic fan base that doesn’t truly understand the height of the hill they’re climbing. Consider that Vanderbilt is currently outrecruiting the Vols and you quickly understand how dire this situation might be.

Upside:

Like Kentucky, there’s only one direction this can really go. The important take-away is knowing that once you’ve hit rock bottom, if you keep working hard, things can turn in a hurry. And you can be guaranteed Dooley’s staff is working hard. UT is still in on quite a few elite prospects, and all it takes is one or two commitments to turn a class. Last year, the Vols impressively swayed a couple of high-profile prospects who were already committed to big-time programs and got them to Knoxville. It may take some late action to keep this class above water this year, but the future is bright.
 

Downside:

If Florida, Georgia and Louisiana can use a wealth of local talent as an asset to fill out their classes, Tennessee comes up on the short end most years as the state simply doesn’t churn out a lot of great football talent. In years past, the Vols were able to go into Atlanta, North Alabama, and the Carolinas to find players who were ready to suit up in the orange and white. To some degree, those pipelines have dried up. It will be interesting to see what approach this staff takes to recruiting. The Shulas and Zooks of the world would often, to their detriment, always invest a lot into elite players only to play the role of the bridesmaid. Will UT spend a lot of effort recruiting elite prospects only to come in second or third, or will they focus their efforts in this class on guys they can build a program around who they can actually sign? The answer seems to be the latter, and may be indicative of the level of support they have from the administration and fans (which is a positive in this whole situation.)
 

Star of the Class:

Drae Bowles, a quick receiver out of Jackson Christian HS. Bowles is just the kind of player who can really compliment the dynamic duo of Justin Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers, who are already on campus. With Tyler Bray showing so much promise a year ago, Bowles could be the final weapon UT needs in its passing attack. Plus, it’s a recruiting win in West Tennessee, an area where UT has suffered to some degree as Ole Miss, Alabama, Mississippi State and Arkansas have had recent success.

South Carolina –

The Gamecocks hoped to follow up their first Eastern Division title with a banner recruiting class, and so far the 2012 crop isn’t disappointing. This class is full of quality and quantity, no doubt due at least in some part to their on-field momentum from last season. Steve Spurrier has done two things very well. He’s done a great job of recruiting the appreciable talent base that’s already in South Carolina (securing players like Marcus Lattimore and Stephon Gilmore who were highly coveted by basically every program in the nation,) and he’s made Columbia an attractive place for out-of-state recruits. The proximity to the Atlanta area and North Carolina has been a major key to the success during the program’s resurgence. This year, the momentum really ramped up during July, when the ‘Cocks received commitments from Shaq Roland, Kwinton Smith and Joe Harris. Roland and Smith are two elite WR prospects from inside South Carolina who were sought after by virtually everyone in the country. They’ll be perfect fits in this offense. The Gamecocks, like Kentucky, received commitments from twin brothers this summer as Brock and Clayton Stadnik pledged to South Carolina. Both project as offensive linemen.

Upside:

Momentum is strong, and there’s no reason South Carolina can’t close this class out extremely well. The benefit to such a well-rounded class so early in the process is that the Gamecocks can turn some of their attention to 2013 while also keying in on a few final big names. Don’t be surprised if they add one or two other big names before National Signing Day.
 

Downside:

It’s hard to find one. Most of the current commits seem fairly solid, and there’s a good mix of elite talent and solid role players you can build a class around. One thing that stands out is that this seems to be an offense-heavy class so far. The Gamecocks would do well to get verbals from a couple more players in their defensive front seven. Jadeveon Clowney is fast, but he can’t be everywhere at once. Or can he?
 

Star of the Class:

Roland is a great get for Carolina. He’s not as tall as Alshon Jeffery or Tori Gurley, but he’ll make a nice weapon in the slot, and they’ll be able to move him around and use him as a real weapon.

Vanderbilt –

The Commodores have to be the surprise of the recruiting season at the halfway point in this class. They’ve been able to land quality players with a new coaching staff who hasn’t even dug its feet deep in the region yet. To this point, they’ve bested their divisional rivals in Knoxville and Lexington by using a relentless, positive pitch approach. They’re saying the right things, and apparently, recruits like what they hear so far. Let’s temper this optimism with a dose of reality: this class won’t likely land in the top 20 nationally by the time the signing period begins, but it could finish among the top 8 in the SEC, which would be an amazing feat and could help springboard the program to legitimacy in years to come. James Franklin and his staff have gone far and wide to help fill out this class, and they’ve followed the model of other programs and headed to Georgia to land some above-average players. The first week in July was where this group really turned the corner, landing four players with offers from other high-major programs. Brian Kimbrow, an electric all-purpose back out of Memphis (East).

Upside:

There’s plenty to be happy about on West End. It seems as though a real interest in Vanderbilt football is developing with the summer recruiting pickups, and anytime Vandy fans can lord anything over their orange neighbors to the east, it’s reason for celebration. One has to wonder how much longer this recruiting “hot streak” (a relative term, to be sure) can continue for Vanderbilt, but let’s enjoy the ride while it lasts.
 

Downside:

Again, let’s be realistic. This is a better start than anyone expected, but this is still Vanderbilt we’re talking about, and it’s going to take more than a few decent commitments to vault this program into serious discussions for anything. The expectation here is that over time, things typically have a way of evening themselves out. Teams typically regress to a mean, and past performance may be an indicator of future results. Maybe they’ll prove us wrong, but it’s hard to expect this type of success to continue. For now, expect things to cool down for now as Vandy holds what it has.
 

Star of the Class:

The aforementioned Kimbrow is a great steal for Vanderbilt. If Franklin can get into Memphis and set up shop, it will pay dividends. It’s not a huge surprise that Vandy got a kid out of Memphis. The city has sort of been a recruiting wild card where many teams have been able to make headway. It is a total shock, however, that the Commodores got Kimbrow.

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