Two years ago, Vanderbilt football coach James Franklin was a Southeastern Conference newcomer eager to talk to anyone on the recruiting trail who would listen.
His need for introduction these days is minimal.
Bolstered by back-to-back bowl appearances and the program's first nine-win season since 1915, Franklin is closing in on a consensus top-20 recruiting haul in the nation's most competitive league. Entering this weekend, Rivals.com ranked Vanderbilt's 21 commitments 15th in the country, while Scout.com had the Commodores 17th and ESPN had them 18th.
"Going into the homes and the high schools and walking around the hallways, it couldn't be any more different," Franklin said this past week. "You think about two years ago when we got the job to where it is now, and there is just a positive buzz, an excitement and a level of respect that I would not have anticipated. There is a real positive vibe, and it's not just the nine wins.
"It's the bowl and the bowl win. It's being able to retain the staff. It's a combination of all these things and factors, and people just see that Vanderbilt is doing some good things, and they're taking notice."
The Commodores won their last six games in the regular season -- a first since 1948 -- and capped a 9-4 year with a 38-24 win over North Carolina State in the Music City Bowl. They went 6-6 in Franklin's first season before losing the Liberty Bowl to Cincinnati, and Vanderbilt's 15 wins over the past two seasons are the most since 1926-27.
The Commodores had Rivals.com's 70th best recruiting class in 2011, when Franklin arrived after a three-year stint as Maryland's offensive coordinator. Vandy's class a year ago was ranked 29th by Rivals.com and 45th by Scout.com.
"What Vanderbilt has done under Franklin is unprecedented at that school," Scout.com analyst Jamie Newberg said. "I've never seen it, and it seems like every year it gets better and better. He is selling those kids on the SEC and playing early in the SEC, and he is selling an Ivy League education in the SEC. It's all working."
To win nine games is eye-popping from a historical standpoint, but its impact on this year's signing class has been limited. Vanderbilt had 16 commitments before the Commodores kicked off the 2012 season with a 17-13 home loss to South Carolina.
"That's why I'm so proud of the class before," Franklin said. "The class before really jumped on before we had anything to show for it. This class jumped on and saw what we were able to do in a very short period of time. Probably the biggest thing the nine wins did was to get us in some more conversations with some people that we didn't get involved with last spring."
Vanderbilt made recruiting headlines last winter by signing tailback Brian Kimbrow from Memphis, defensive end Caleb Azubike from Nashville and linebacker Darreon Herring from Stone Mountain, Ga. This past season, Kimbrow rushed for 413 yards and 6.3 yards a carry, Azubike racked up 21 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss and Herring tallied 33 tackles and two forced fumbles.
Headlining this year's class are linebacker Nigel Bowden of Macon, Ga.; dual-threat quarterback Johnathon McCrary of Ellenwood, Ga.; cornerback Ryan White of Louisville, Ky.; defensive tackle Jay Woods of Jackson, Ga.; and offensive lineman Delando Crooks of Atlanta. All five players are four-star prospects according to Rivals.com or Scout.com, and Bowden is Rivals.com's No. 10 inside linebacker nationally.
"I've been at this about 17 years now and have had kids sign with Florida, Alabama and all the way out at Southern Cal, and I don't know if I've met someone who has a way about himself like Coach Franklin," said Jesse Hicks, Bowden's coach at Macon Central High. "He is coming into the state of Georgia and pulling out some top-notch players. If he continues on the track he's on, I can't see any reason why they won't be competing for an SEC title."
Hicks said Bowden has a 3.7 grade point average and is a National Honor Society member. Not everybody fits such a profile, however, and Franklin said his program will continue to face the challenge of "operating under different parameters" with stronger academic requirements.
Vanderbilt defeated Tennessee 41-18 this past season and leads the Volunteers in every recruiting service, but Franklin insists that is not a motivating factor.
"The only thing that really affects is being able to sell season tickets and younger kids seeing a lot of positive things out of Vanderbilt," he said. "I guess it helps in recruiting and with the high school coaches as well, but we're just becoming a hard thing to argue with right now in general. If you're a parent and truly appreciate a world-class education and not just playing minor-league football, you have a chance to send your son to Vanderbilt, play in the greatest conference in America and live in a great town like Nashville.
"You may be a fan of another program, but that's hard to argue with."
David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...