Vanderbilt’s never-ending search for more pure athletes for its football program again led to the basketball court this year.
Akeem Dunham, Archie Barnes and Antonio Wilson, expected to become part of VU’s football recruiting class of 2008 on national signing day Wednesday, each made their marks as athletes by first becoming hoops stars.
Tall, rangy and quick, they fit the profile Vanderbilt seeks as it tries to keep pace with the speed and athleticism of Southeastern Conference opponents.
In recruiting each, the Commodores figured there was little to lose and much to gain.
“It’s hard to hide on the basketball court,” Vanderbilt football coach Bobby Johnson said. “You have to do certain things and you have to be athletic.”
VU has had success before in traveling down this road.
From the 2007 team, starting defensive ends Curtis Gatewood and Steven Stone were decorated basketball players in high school before arriving at Vanderbilt.
A pair of key reserves, wide receiver Justin Wheeler and tight end Justin Green, had also been prep hoops standouts.
“You feel like they can gain weight and see they can move,” Johnson said. “Size, too. You can’t teach size. With some of those guys, you probably take a quicker chance than you would on some others. If you’re going to take a chance on a guy, you take a chance on a big guy.”
The 6-foot-4, 190-pound Dunham didn’t join the Eustis (Fla.) High football team until his junior year after he was already entrenched as a basketball stalwart. In fact, he was one of 1,000 players nationally to receive McDonald’s All-America basketball consideration last month.
Dunham blossomed as a football player last fall, playing defensive back and snaring 12 interceptions, the most in the Central Florida region and good enough to earn Class 3A all-state honors. It was then he realized that football was his calling.
“I considered it [playing basketball in college] early, but I realized there are a lot of 6-4 athletes that can dribble and pass and shoot and do the things I can do,” Dunham told the Orlando Sentinel. “But there are not as many 6-4 football players who have the speed and can catch passes like I can.”
Dunham projects as a wide receiver at Vanderbilt. In that role at Eustis last fall, he caught 32 passes for 610 yards and eight touchdowns.
The 6-foot-4, 200-pound Barnes has a similar story.
He’s an established basketball standout and is currently a starting guard for Tampa (Fla.) Berkeley Prep, which has been ranked No. 1 in the state in Class 3A for most of this season.
Barnes’ basketball lineage runs deep. His father, Russ [an Air Force colonel] played college basketball at Manhattan in the early 1980s.
On the football field last season, Barnes averaged nearly eight yards per carry and passed for more than 600 yards while playing quarterback. He was named to the 2007 FACA District 13 all-star team as a defensive back by Hillsborough County coaches and received all-county recognition by the Tampa Tribune.
Barnes is slated to enroll at Vanderbilt as a “grayshirt,” meaning he will sign this week and enroll in January 2009 unless VU has an unforeseen scholarship opening before then. He is likely to play defensive back.
For the 6-foot-5, 220-pound Wilson, football was an afterthought when he first began attending Columbia High in Decatur, Ga. Not until his senior year did he strap on the pads.
In what must be considered a remarkable journey, he is expected to sign an SEC football scholarship this week after playing only four career prep football games due to an injury.
In those four games, Wilson posted 11 sacks as a defensive end, overwhelming opponents with size and speed. Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, Notre Dame, North Carolina and Oklahoma showed interest. Vanderbilt pulled the trigger, offered a scholarship, and beat several smaller schools for Wilson’s services.
While Dunham, Barnes and Wilson won’t appear on any national top-100 football recruiting lists, Vanderbilt hopes they are be jewels waiting to be polished.
“There's a lot of basketball players, I think, that feel like early in their careers that they’re going to be a national basketball recruit,” Johnson said. “But there are just so many of them that they finally see the light and say, ‘If I want to play some kind of sport in college, I better expand my horizons a little bit.’
“So they go out for football. They’ve been good athletes the entire lives, so it doesn’t take a lot for them to be good football players.”