By Zac Ellis
On campus in Nashville – A fax machine hummed early Wednesday morning at Vanderbilt’s McGugin Center, which could only mean one thing: National Signing Day, during which Commodores’ coaches and staffers were up-and-at ‘em before the Nashville sunrise. Letters of Intent for the newest crop of ‘Dores rolled in as the morning passed on West End. Those newcomers signaled the next era of Vanderbilt football under head coach Derek Mason.
On Wednesday Vanderbilt put a bow on a 20-person signing class, the third full – and fourth overall -- group of signees brought to Nashville by Mason’s staff. The class includes two early enrollees who will take part in spring practice: Warner Robins, Ga. defensive back Tae Daley and Cedar Hill, Texas linebacker Dimitri Moore. But Mason said Vanderbilt’s entire crop of signees is poised to help the Commodores take another step in the SEC.
“I truly believe the impact of this class will be to push this program to its limits,” Mason told VUCommodores.com. “In years past, we’ve been foundational in what we’ve been able to do, with blue-collar classes and guys who have had to play early. But this class is talented with size and athleticism. It has impact guys at different positions that I truly believe will push this program forward.”
For the third straight season, Vanderbilt grew as a program under Mason. The Commodores notched wins over Georgia, Ole Miss and Tennessee to finish the regular season 6-6, 3-5 in the SEC. That record made the ‘Dores bowl-eligible for the first time since 2013, setting up a Dec. 26 matchup with N.C. State in the Camping World Independence Bowl in Shreveport, La.
That success did not go unnoticed by the rest of the SEC. Now Mason and his staff see the effect of that success on their recruiting board, as well.
“The impact of what this program did in 2016 will forever affect Vanderbilt football,” Mason said. “It helped solidify the brand. People in the SEC have started recognizing this football team is getting better. But last season, we really made a statement as to what the brand is nationally.”
A reaffirmed brand helped Vanderbilt lock in a 2017 signing class that features eight players on offense and 12 on defense. The Commodores inked a fortifying group up front with eight newcomers who line up on either the offensive or defensive lines. SEC football is often won or lost in the trenches, and Mason signed prospects like defensive ends Stone Edwards (Hillsborough, N.C.) and Dayo Obeyingbo (Irving, Texas) to provide immediate talent on the edge. “The impact of depth and athleticism will allow us to build up front and really help this class,” Mason said.
On offense, Vanderbilt signed 6’4’’ quarterback Jacob Free of Brantley, Ala. to add depth behind starter Kyle Shurmur. Free threw for 2,727 yards and totaled 41 touchdowns as a senior at Brantley High. The ‘Dores also bolstered their running back room with Illinois transfer Ke’Shawn Vaughn, a Nashville native who played in 22 games in two seasons with the Illini.
Meanwhile, Mason secured size within the Commodores’ receiving corps with the addition of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. signee James Bostic (6’3’’) and Smithfield, Va. prospect Chris Pierce (6’4’’). “These guys are the kind of big receivers we face in the SEC, and they are guys who can make plays,” Mason said. “This will allow us to play more one-on-one and change the dimensions on the perimeter.”
Vanderbilt’s most recent class also includes a pair of brothers of current players: Odeyingbo, brother of redshirt sophomore defensive end Dare, and Norcross, Ga. defensive lineman Jalen Pinkney, brother of redshirt sophomore tight end Jared. The Commodores later added to their roster’s Polynesian pipeline with Hawaiian signees in linebacker Feleti Afemui and defensive lineman Jonah Buchanan. Vanderbilt’s 2016 roster included three Polynesian players: defensive linemen Nifae Lealao and Josiah Sa’o and offensive lineman Sean Auwae-McMoore.
From coast to coast, Mason and his staff felt the impact of Vanderbilt’s evolving brand in prospects’ living rooms. During a five-day stretch between Jan. 15-19, Mason traveled 5,000 miles and visited seven cities in five states. Now the Commodores routinely venture to the far reaches of the country.
“We’re making inroads in places that Vanderbilt hasn’t necessarily touched,” Mason said. “That national brand has given us a national spotlight.”
Vanderbilt’s newcomers are tasked with building upon a rising era of Commodore football, one with a bright future under Mason. On National Signing Day, Mason said he is reminded exactly what’s special about a place like Vanderbilt.
“Recruits see Vanderbilt competing in the SEC, and they know they can get a great education, live in one of the best cities in the country and do it in the SEC,” Mason said. “People respect that Vanderbilt is a place where you can have it all.”