New coach but same strategy for Vandy

Bobby Johnson, who did a fine job in his eight seasons at Vanderbilt, stunned the college football world by announcing his retirement on July 14. His successor is his longtime friend and former Commodores offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell.

How will this change at the top affect the way Vanderbilt recruits? Sure, it's just one coach, but this is the head coach we are talking about. They have different styles. Johnson was more of your distinguished CEO type, while Caldwell is laid-back with lots of Southern charm. In fact, it's safe to say after watching Caldwell at the SEC meetings a few weeks ago that he has a little Bobby Bowden in him.

Despite the good ol' boy personality and the Southern drawl, don't underestimate Caldwell. He's smart, energetic and motivating. These traits, along with his infectious personality should give Vandy a boost with recruits.

"I always liked Coach Caldwell and originally thought he would be my position coach if I picked them," said offensive tackle Jake Bernstein (Crystal Lake, Ill./South), Vanderbilt's most recent commit. "Now he will be my head coach. He's different than your average coach. He's laid back, outgoing and very funny. That's what drew me to him initially. I can't wait to be coached by him."

You would think there could be some philosophical or strategic change with a new coach running the show, but don't expect many recruiting changes. Instead, as it has done the past couple of years, Vanderbilt will hit its bread-and-butter region -- the Southeast -- hard and heavy.

Vanderbilt did a study going back five years and tracked where every FBS recruit came from. The Commodores' staff, under Johnson, looked at cities, counties and states. Their findings altered where they placed their coaches on the road and the territories they recruited. Realizing that Tennessee borders so many other states, they applied a five-hour rule, knowing they had a much better shot at landing players in that radius. Their belief is that five hours is a good threshold for most recruits who have to drive to Nashville or get home from school. They also wanted to recruit cities and areas that had easy airport access and could get to Nashville cheaply and timely. Tennessee, Georgia, Louisiana and Alabama would still be hit hard, but the staff made a conscious effort to recruit the Sunshine State much harder.

"They did a great job of finding out where the academic players were, not just players," Caldwell said. "It was a very good study. We will continue to utilize the study and recruit those areas. We had to take a geography lesson when we got here because a lot of us where from North Carolina and South Carolina. There are so many places that are just four, five hours away. So we made some subtle changes. What we hope to do now is to keep going on a consistent basis. We want to win and graduate our players. That's our No. 1 goal."

The Commodores recently removed the interim tag from Caldwell's title, which is big when it comes to recruiting and finishing off this class. Recruits want assurance that Caldwell will be in Nashville longer than the end of November. Prospects also want to know that this program is moving in the right direction after losing Johnson to retirement. In turn, the Vanderbilt program needs to gain back some recruiting momentum, and one of the ways it will do that is to get Caldwell on the phone with prospects once Sept. 1 rolls around. The feeling is that Caldwell can help the Commodores gain some recruiting ground once he gets to know these kids, convincing them with his Southern charm.

Commodores fans don't realize just how good a recruiter Caldwell has been at all his stops, but specifically at North Carolina, N.C. State and Vanderbilt. He has landed great players like Torry Holt, Adrian Wilson, Earl Bennett and Gaines Adams, just to name a few.

"I have been blessed with the gift of gab, and I love people and talking with them," Caldwell said. "Recruiting is about selling things and being honest with them. There are some players out there that just want to play football and some that want to play football and get an education. We want that mixture. You can play great football in the No. 1 league in college football and get a great education. That's a great sell for us."

Whom the Commodores have
Damien Fleming is an exciting quarterback prospect from Ribault High School in Jacksonville, Fla. He's blessed with very good size (6-foot-3, 175 pounds) and athleticism. This combination makes him tough to deal with in the pocket. Fleming is quick and has good speed and pocket presence. He can extend a play. Fleming shows a good arm and the ability to make all the throws. He has a lot of upside.

Bernstein is a three-star offensive tackle prospect with good size at 6-4 and 276 pounds. He is an aggressive and physical offensive line prospect who is stout against the run.

"Academics were the big reason I picked Vanderbilt," Bernstein said. "I also loved [strength coach John Sisk] and that's what I want to do. Vandy has so many good things to like. I love where the program is headed. It's also helps that it doesn't snow there."

James Lewis (Arlington, Tenn./Arlington) is one of many FBS offensive line prospects from the Volunteer State. The 6-5, 275-pounder with good feet and long arms is staying home to play for the Commodores. He gets off the ball quickly, is a very good drive-blocker in the run game, slides well in pass protection and is blessed with athleticism.

Defensive end prospect Conor Hart (Bloomfield Hills, Mich./Brother Rice) looks underrated. He has good size at 6-3 and 245 pounds with long arms and is pretty quick off the edge. He has speed, range and a good motor, and he can chase from behind. Last season, he recorded 73 tackles and six sacks.

Whom the Commodores still want
The Commodores would like to sign 14 to 18 recruits depending on attrition. There isn't a primary need, rather, they would like to land a little of everything across the board.

Running backs Mitchell Hester (Neptune, Fla./Fletcher Senior), Willie Davis (Stone Mountain, Ga./Stephenson), Ameer Abdullah (Homewood, Ala./Homewood), J.J. Keels (Melbourne, Fla./Florida Air Academy), Marquis Sumler (Pensacola, Fla./Pensacola), LaFrederick Ford (Kirbyville, Texas/Kirbyville) and Kendarius Fritts (Linden, Ala./Linden) are all possibilities. Fritts is a former teammate of Vanderbilt defensive back Seandre Richardson.

Vandy is one of four leaders for wide receiver Curtric Evans (Hollywood, Fla./Chaminade-Madonna) along with Nebraska, Boston College and USF. The Commodores are in the hunt for wideout Max Morrison (Kenton, Ohio/Kenton) and Courtney Bynes (Fort Lauderdale, Fla./Boyd Anderson). Bynes is a teammate with Steven Clarke, a Commodore signee from this past recruiting class. Vanderbilt is also working on Duke commit Nick Hill (Nashville, Tenn./Pearl-Cohn). Tight end Rory Anderson (Powder Springs, Ga./McEachern) is one to watch as well.

Offensive linemen Cody Robinson (McMinnville, Tenn./Warren County), Joe Thuney (Kettering, Ohio/Archbishop Alter) and Spencer Pulley (Cordova, Tenn./Evangelical Christian) are three possibilities across the front. On the other side of the ball, Vanderbilt has a good shot at landing defensive end Keith Heitzman (Hilliard, Ohio/Hilliard Davidson) and Shaq Love (Harriman, Tenn./Harriman).

Some linebackers to look for are D.J. Hill (Covington, Ga./Newton), Conard Johnson (Fort Lauderdale, Fla./Dillard), Terrance Plummer (Orange Park, Fla./Orange Park), Maleki Harris (Calera, Ala./Calera), and the Vandy staff would love to turn Syracuse commit Cameron Lynch (Snellville, Ga./Brookwood). At defensive back the Commodores are hot after Corian Hamilton (Orlando, Fla./Olympia), Champ Lewis (Fort Myers, Fla./Dunbar) and Wayne Lyons (Oakland Park, Fla./Dillard). Vanderbilt also could land athlete Derek King (Brentwood, Tenn./Brentwood), and it would love to close with Dai-Jon Parker (Alpharetta, Ga./Milton).

Bottom line
The main thing with the Commodores is they can't afford to take steps backward. They have to play hard and play well this fall. They don't have to win the SEC East, but they must remain competitive and win their share of games. Anything less could pop up red flags about their new head coach, and red flags don't bode well in recruiting.

Jamie Newberg has been covering recruiting in the Southeast and nationally for 19 years. He can be reached at jamienewbergbw@yahoo.com.