Vanderbilt Football Early Signing Day Roundup: Lea inks his first class

The Commodores signed their highest-ranked recruiting class since 2013 on Early Signing Day Dec. 15.

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Vanderbilt Athletics

Vanderbilt head coach Clark Lea and position coaches celebrate Early Signing Day on Dec. 15, 2021. (Vanderbilt Athletics)

Andy Carr, Staff Writer

On Wednesday, Dec. 15, head coach Clark Lea met with the media to discuss the initial signing date for the Class of 2022. It marked an important day in Lea’s career at Vanderbilt, as the Commodores pulled in their highest-ranked recruiting class since 2013. 

As of the evening of Dec. 18, Vanderbilt’s 2022 class is ranked 35th nationally and 13th in the SEC, according to 247Sports. The Commodores’ 2021 recruiting class was ranked 49th nationally by 247Sports, so this year represents a remarkable improvement thus far. They currently have 22 players who have signed their letter of intent, as well as two players that have declared a hard commit and one player that plans to transfer to Vanderbilt (linebacker Kane Patterson from Clemson).

One of Lea and company’s main goals for the offseason was recruiting athletic players with size and length, and he was able to do just that. Lea added eight players who measure 6’5” or more.

“We wanted to go after measurable traits and to be a developmental program and to project guys that will have positive contributions to the program,” he said. “We think we have measurable speed in the class. Obviously we’ve gotten longer. I think that’s a great start as a foundational class for the program.”

The Commodores dealt with a handful of decommits this fall—seven, to be exact—so Lea addressed some of the adversity that he and his staff felt early.

“We have the makings of something special here. It’s just not going to be for everybody, and that’s ok. You have to be a visionary. You have to be a builder,” he said. “We want competitive people that understand that the work ahead is critical, and we’ve got a lot of ground to cover yet. Today is certainly a day of celebration, and it’s a great day for our future as a program.”

While the Commodores are coming off a disappointing two-win season, they are headed in the right direction as they begin the start of Team Two and the 2022 season.

BIGGEST WINS

Although Lea has stressed that the program is still in the beginning stages of a rebuild, he acknowledged that in order to develop and progress, the Commodores will need to stay relevant in the SEC recruiting mix with their fellow competitors. 

“I was really pleased with our ability to weather the outside interest in our class. That was a real threat that we faced and we had a group of guys that had bought in and believed in what we’re building, and they want to be a part of it,” he said. “So to keep this class intact through the end to the Signing Day today was a fight, and it was a fun fight. It gets all of us excited about what’s possible. Then to build upon the class late in the finish again I think speaks to what’s possible here.”

The Commodores brought in edge rusher Darren Agu despite offers from Tennessee and Alabama, as well as a number of local prospects: Langston Patterson, a linebacker from CPA who received an offer from Arkansas, and Grayson Morgan, an offensive tackle from Montgomery Bell Academy who received an offer from Kentucky.

In particular, the Commodores had to work especially hard for Agu. The talented 6’6”, 225-pound edge rusher was initially committed to Notre Dame before de-committing this summer and deciding to head to Vanderbilt. It wasn’t until signing day that the commitment became official, however, as Agu went on a visit to Knoxville on Dec. 3 and was the subject of a great deal of interest from the Commodores’ rival.

“Darren’s a guy that saw early the possibilities here at Vanderbilt. We were able to pry him away from a competitor early in the process,” Lea said. “I think [defensive line coach] Jovan Haye did a great job building the relationship there and getting him connected to (the) vision … He’s a guy with a tremendous upside that already has measurable skill, and in the end we knew that we were going to be one of many suitors. I think that ultimately for Darren, it was about connection to vision. It was about belief in what’s possible here.”

LOCAL TALENT

Since there are a great deal of accomplished high school football programs and skillful players in the middle Tennessee area, Lea emphasized the importance of capitalizing on the local market in recruiting now—like the Commodores did with Patterson and Morgan—and in the future.

“When I took this job, in my heart I wanted this to be a program for middle Tennessee kids. There’s so many good high school programs here right in our backyard, and there’s no reason for them to go anywhere else. There’s just really not,” he said. “We have to build this program to that point, and that’s about strengthening our community. That’s about getting the word out and connecting with Nashville.”

Another local talent that will join the Commodores is Kane Patterson, older brother of Langston. He was a 4-star recruit out of CPA in the 2019 class and is transferring from Clemson, where he made 30 tackles (three of them for loss) throughout his three-year career for the Tigers. He is expected to come to Vanderbilt in January and will likely complement linebackers Ethan Barr and Anfernee Orji. 

TACKLING GEORGIA

While Tennessee has a great deal of talent, so do other local states nearby. There’s a reason the SEC has been so dominant: the southeastern United States has some of the most successful high school programs and talented young men in the country. Thus, Lea realizes that to compete with its conference foes, Vanderbilt must develop strong out-of-state relationships, particularly in Georgia.

“We think that Georgia is a great state for us. It has been historically. I think when you draw a five-hour radius around our campus, you recognize that there’s just a lot of good football talent in that five-hour radius, and Georgia is a part of that. Obviously, [run game coordinator] Norval McKenzie has been influential there and so has [defensive coordinator] Jesse Minter, who spent time down there too as a coach,” he said. 

Among the Georgia players in the Commodores’ 2022 recruiting class: quarterback AJ Swann, cornerback Quantaves Gaskins, tight end Cole Spence, wide receiver Daveon Walker, athlete Savion Riley, defensive lineman Linus Zinuk and Agu (Zinuk is German and Agu is Irish, but the two of them went to high school together in Georgia). As seven of the 22 players in this year’s class from Vanderbilt are from Georgia, it is clear that there is potential for the relationship between the university and the state to grow in years to come. 

“There’s also this element of—and this is what’s fun about compounding results in recruiting—you start to see the impact that your recruits can have, the ripple effect they can have,” Lea said. “This is an exciting time for this program, and it’s a great place to be. Serious football players are looking at us saying, ‘I want to be a part of this. We’ve got a blank canvas there and we’re gonna build this thing together.’”

RECRUITING OVERSEAS 

Vanderbilt also went beyond their backyard in recruiting and even went overseas. Edge rusher Agu and defensive linemen Zunk and Yilanan Ouattara are all Commodore commits from Europe—Agu is Irish, while both Zunk and Ouattara are German. Lea has mentioned that above anything else, Vanderbilt prioritizes looking for the players that best fit their program.

“We have to be willing to explore those possibilities to find the best players and the best players that fit our system. I think the kids particularly—Linus and Darren from Rabun Gap—are guys that just fit our profile. They’re developmental,” he said. “Again, they haven’t had long careers in football. So we feel like through our systems of teaching and training that their best football is ahead of them, which is awesome.”

ONE IDENTITY

Lea has remained headstrong on embracing the unique identity that Vanderbilt has. While the SEC is filled with college football powerhouses, storied programs and dominant coaches, Vanderbilt can offer players something that no other school in the conference can: an unrivaled education and the opportunity to experience Nashville.

“We’re not going to sit back in the corner and apologize for being Vanderbilt. This is about us going and rolling our sleeves up and fighting for this program every single day,” he said. “But in the end, there’s only one in the country that’s a top-15 school that’s stitched in the middle of Nashville and that’s playing football, in our opinion, in the only conference that matters: the SEC. That’s here in Nashville. It’s at Vanderbilt. So we’re not going to apologize for that. We’re going to go out there and recruit to it and find the guys that can help us build this into what we know it can be.”

QUARTERBACK CAROUSEL

Lastly, Lea mentioned the quarterback situation, as the Commodores picked up two new quarterbacks in the 2022 recruiting class: Swann (Vanderbilt’s highest-ranked recruit, according to 247Sports) and Drew Dickey. 

Swann will enroll at Vanderbilt in January, while Dickey will enroll next fall. The addition of these two talented prospects to Vanderbilt’s campus will make for an interesting situation behind center next fall, especially with the existing competition that is already in place between quarterbacks Mike Wright and Ken Seals.

“Both these guys [Swann and Dickey] are proven winners. Both of them are confident players. They’re playmakers and they’re both going to come in to compete. I think that’s one aspect that’s the common thread there,” he said. “Everyone’s a little different, but both Drew and AJ are hyper-competitive and prideful and have an incredible belief in their ability to have impact. That’s not just going to help us on the field. That’s going to help us in the locker room too. When you bring guys with that mindset into the program and you give the strong nucleus of a team that exists here already, you just strengthen the operation through and through.”

The Commodores have a few loose ends to tie in this year’s recruiting class before turning their attention to next fall. They have two players that have committed but not officially signed to the school in athlete KD Hutchinson and safety Jeffrey Ugo, as well as Patterson, who plans to transfer to Vanderbilt from Clemson. National Signing Day is on Thursday, Feb. 3, and the 2022 season begins on Saturday, Aug. 27, when the Commodores travel to Hawaii to face the Rainbow Warriors of the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa.