Vanderbilt Football producing strong wave of NFL talent

Photo+by+Brent+Szklaruk
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Vanderbilt Football producing strong wave of NFL talent

Photo by Brent Szklaruk

Photo by Brent Szklaruk

Photo by Brent Szklaruk

Photo by Brent Szklaruk

Cutler Klein, Sports Editor

At a media event ahead of the NFL Draft, former Tennessee Volunteers defensive back and current NFL Network analyst Charles Davis was asked about Vanderbilt Football’s recent success.

“Don’t try and rub it in now,” he said with a smile. “We used to run this thing, and we’re going to get back to it.”

While Vanderbilt has been more successful on the field in recent years, the program has also seen another trend arise that former Commodores Joejuan Williams and Kyle Shurmur could continue this weekend at the 2019 NFL Draft in downtown Nashville.

Vanderbilt football players are getting noticed more, and succeeding more in the NFL.

In the 15 years between 1990 and 2005, Vanderbilt saw 15 former Commodores get picked in the NFL Draft. Between 2006 and 2018, starting with Jay Cutler’s selection by the Denver Broncos, 18 former Commodores were been picked in the NFL Draft, and other undrafted free agents have found success at the NFL level, including Adam Butler, Tre Herndon and Spencer Pulley.

According to Davis, all it took was getting a few Commodores into the professional ranks to start turning some heads towards West End.

“Once you get them here, you have to develop them, you have to coach them,” Davis said of Vanderbilt’s recruiting. “People don’t always give a lot of credit to places like an Alabama, a Clemson, places of that nature because they think they get the big-time athlete, turn them loose and they go play. These guys get coached. That’s what Vanderbilt does, that’s why these guys are getting better, getting mentioned, getting noticed, because once they get to the NFL, they produce, and that brings the NFL back again because something good is happening there. I like what they’re doing there in coaching these kids up.”

Photo by Brent Szklaruk

Cutler had a solid career as a quarterback for the Broncos, Chicago Bears and Miami Dolphins, and his selection started getting more and more Vanderbilt players noticed. Offensive lineman Chris Williams, wide receiver Earl Bennett, linebacker Jonathan Goff and defensive back D.J. Moore were all picked in the first five rounds of the 2008 and 2009 NFL Drafts. All of them went on to have solid careers, and Goff even won a Super Bowl with the New York Giants.

Once James Franklin took over the program, even more Commodores got some professional looks. Defensive backs Casey Hayward and Andre Hal, running back Zac Stacy and wide receiver Jordan Matthews all got picked under Franklin, and have all found remarkable success in the NFL. Hayward has had a particularly exceptional career, having been named to two Pro Bowls and led the NFL in interceptions in 2016.

NFL Draft analyst Joel Klatt attributes the increased attention on Vanderbilt to larger trends in parity in college football, as well as Franklin’s revitalization of the program.

“I think James Franklin was the turning point for them in the way that he recruited, the way that he operated at Vanderbilt,” Klatt said. “Then when you have a guy like Cutler, it brings more attention to your program, so national recruits will look at that and say ‘Boy, academics are very important to me, elite football is very important to me, so Vanderbilt is a good fit.’ All of those things play into it, and because of that, now what you’re seeing at several different schools, Northwestern has guys drafted all of the time, Stanford has had guys drafted for a decade. What I’m trying to say is that’s a trend in the entire sport, you’ve got more schools with more opportunity to develop NFL talent.”

Ziyi Liu
Zach Cunningham (41) blocks a field goal as Vanderbilt lost to the Auburn Tigers 23-16 at Jordan Hare Stadium Auburn, Al November 4, 2016. (Ziyi Liu/ The Vanderbilt Hustler)

Under Derek Mason, Vanderbilt’s propensity to develop high-end NFL talent hasn’t stopped. Linebackers Zach Cunningham and Oren Burks have started to make their mark on the NFL, and other undrafted players like Butler and Herndon have come out of nowhere to make an impact on NFL teams.

The way Mason coaches and his approach to his job has been vital in bringing in the best and the brightest talent that have NFL potential, according to Stanford Head Coach David Shaw, Mason’s former boss in Palo Alto.

“I think Derek is in this profession for the right reason,” said Shaw. “He’s a great coach, but he’s also a great mentor. When you’re a great mentor, you’re looking for great people to mentor. You find guys that are motivated and talented and smart. Those are the guys that the NFL wants. They want guys that are motivated, talented and smart. If you find those guys, which Coach Mason has been able to do, they have the ability to make this jump from college to the NFL.”

With Williams and Shurmur entering this year’s NFL Draft with high hopes and high potential, they have the opportunity to hear their names called right down the road from Vanderbilt Stadium. Unlike some of their predecessors that have made the jump from West End to the NFL, the two will have a history of successful Vanderbilt players behind them.

Scouts will not be taking a risk on some random players from the only private school in the SEC that hasn’t been a perennial contender. They will be looking at the next products from a place that produces consummate professionals that will be great influences on and off the field.

“You look at all of those guys, smart and tough,” NFL Draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah said. “They’ve done a good job of identifying and developing smart, tough football players. On the scouting side of things, there’s comfort in that knowing if you’re going to get a Vanderbilt guy, you feel good about what type of player you’re getting.”

Stay tuned for complete coverage of the 2019 NFL Draft in Nashville.

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