NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — James Franklin has been promising that he's just getting started at Vanderbilt. Now the coach has followed up the best season since 1915 by landing a recruiting class rated in the top 20 for the first time in the program's history.
Vanderbilt signed 26 players Wednesday, and a final commitment from linebacker Zach Cunningham helped push the Commodores to No. 19 in the ratings by Rivals.com. Even with that success, Vanderbilt still ranks seventh among Southeastern Conference teams and just ahead of Tennessee. Still, Franklin and his coaches are bringing in the type of talent that the Commodores hadn't seen in, well, ever to compete in the SEC.
"That's going to be very important for us to do consistently year in and year out," Franklin said. "We're excited about it. We still have a long way to go. This is two recruiting classes that we've been able to put together that we feel good about. There's teams in this league been doing this for 80 years. So we still have some progress that we have to make, and we're making it. All you can do is get better today."
Vanderbilt went 9-4 last season for the program's best record since 1915, and the Commodores finished off by winning the Music City Bowl for a seventh straight victory that is the longest winning streak in the SEC. That success translated almost immediately as Franklin topped a signing class rated 29th nationally by Rivals a year ago with this class featuring 13 players on offense, 12 on defense and a kicking specialist.
Scout.com rated Vandy's class 20th, while 247Sports.com had the Commodores at No. 35. Barton Simmons, national recruiting coordinator for 247Sports.com, said he still thinks Vandy's class is even better than a year ago as Franklin and his coaches keep topping themselves.
"They missed on a couple of guys late, so they haven't quite gotten over the hump to be able to really compete for an SEC championship on a recruiting level, but they definitely look like they're here to stay as far as contending for that Top 25 (in recruiting rankings)," Simmons said. "As soon as they land a Leon McQuay, a Jalen Ramsey or someone like that, at that level in the future, that could really get them to be in position to be able to truly compete with anyone in the country."
For Franklin, the recruiting rating matters only from a perception standpoint. It helps signal that Vanderbilt is bringing in players that fit not only academically at Vanderbilt but also physically in the SEC where he said they look and perform like everyone they're playing against. He noted all the players in this class had national offers and all had multiple SEC offers.
"Times have changed, and I think that's a real positive for us," Franklin said.
Vanderbilt got plenty of attention Wednesday with Jordan Cunningham, a 6-foot-1, 175-pound receiver from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., announcing on national television that he chose Vanderbilt over offers that included Alabama, Notre Dame, Florida State and Stanford. The final commitment to announce was the other Cunningham, the 10th-overall player in Alabama according to 247Sports.com, picked the Vandy hat instead of Auburn, Tennessee or Oregon.
Even with receiver Jordan Matthews back for his senior season, the Commodores signed five receivers and three tight ends, including tight end Brandon Vandenburg from College of the Desert Community College. He's a rare junior college transfer to the SEC's lone private university, but Franklin expects the 6-foot-5, 255-pound tight end to compete immediately on the field as well as the classroom with a "perfect GPA."
Vanderbilt also features five defensive backs and four defensive linemen, including end Landon Stokes whose father Fred played 10 years in the NFL. With starting quarterback having used up all his eligibility, the class includes two quarterbacks in Chad Kanoff of Pacific Palisades, Calif., and Johnny McCrary from Decatur, Ga. McCrary enrolled in January after choosing from offers including Tennessee, Georgia, Ohio State and Mississippi State.
This is Franklin's third recruiting class overall since he was hired in December 2010. He said they're still trying to fill some holes but he feels confident they're improving their size and depth. He pointed to the offensive line where they had seven players on scholarship last spring and will have 15 this spring.
"We keep raising the bar," Franklin said.
AP Sports Writer Steve Megargee in Knoxville, Tenn., contributed to this report.
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