Is it possible that a program could lose its all-time leading rusher and be significantly improved at the running back position?
Well, it’s still early in the 2018 season, but that appears to be the case for the Vanderbilt Commodores. Through two games — lopsided wins over Middle Tennessee and Nevada — Vanderbilt has rushed for 374 yards and five touchdowns on a 4.9-yard average. Last year at this point, the Commodores rushed for 245 yards (on a 3.5-yard average) and two scores in wins over Middle Tennessee and Alabama A&M (an FBS program that won only four games).
So how has Derek Mason’s team been better despite the loss of Ralph Webb, who rushed for 4,173 yards and started a school-record 49 games? Improved play of the offensive line has no doubt helped. So has the emergence of sophomore Jamauri Wakefield and the improved health of senior Khari Blasingame. But the primary reason Vanderbilt is better in the backfield in 2018? The arrival of Ke’Shawn Vaughn, a transfer from Illinois who starred at Pearl-Cohn High School, only 2.3 miles from Vanderbilt Stadium.
After a somewhat sluggish debut in Black & Gold (37 yards on nine carries against MTSU), Vaughn broke out for 93 yards and two touchdowns on 11 attempts in the 31-point win over Nevada. He paced a ground attack that gained 198 yards on 39 carries.
“It took us a little bit of time to get into the game overall, but in the second half we came out ready to roll,” Vaughn said. “Everybody was locked in.”
Vaughn gave the Commodores a 14–0 lead with a 7-yard run early in the second half and provided a dagger midway through the third when he scored from 46 yards out to extend the lead to 27–10. On his second touchdown, Vaughn broke a tackle at the line of scrimmage and raced untouched to the end zone, showing the type of burst that made him a four-star prospect coming out of high school.
“The stuff we saw from Ke’Shawn today is the stuff we’ve seen all [preseason] camp, so it’s exciting to see out there,” said Vanderbilt quarterback Kyle Shurmur.
Most expected Vaughn to replace Webb as the Commodores’ primary ball-carrier, but it’s been more of a committee approach through two games. Vaughn leads the way with 20 carries, but Wakefield (18 carries) and Blasingame (15 carries and the starter in Week 1) will remain involved in the game plan.
“The key thing is keeping them all fresh through the course of the game and through the course of the season,” offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said. “There are some package plays for each guy, but for the most part we are just kind of rotating guys in and out. It’s a real delicate balance — you want kids to get in the rhythm and the flow of the game while at the same time rolling different people through. We will continue to grow and evolve with that.”
If Vaughn can replicate his production from the Nevada game against Notre Dame and South Carolina in the next few weeks, it might become difficult for Ludwig to maintain the committee approach in the latter half of the season.