Pearl-Cohn High School sits just two miles away from the campus of Vanderbilt University on the west side of Nashville, but in a sense, it’s much farther.
Commodore running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn knows from experience. The Pearl-Cohn graduate and Nashville native now suits up for the black and gold on SEC Saturdays, but his journey to Vanderbilt was not as clear-cut as it may seem.
“Where I’m from, nobody really has dreams of going to Vanderbilt,” Vaughn says. “If we’d drive past West End, we just knew Vanderbilt was over there. I didn’t know much about the campus or anything.”
Vaughn’s winding journey from the inner city to an Ivy League-caliber university had its ups and downs. Today, however, the fifth-year senior running back is not just on the cusp of obtaining his college degree. He enters 2019 as one of the most electric players in the SEC, a human highlight reel who took the league by storm last season.
In 2018, Vaughn ran for 1,244 yards — third most in the SEC behind Texas A&M’s Trayveon Williams and Kentucky’s Benny Snell — and 12 rushing touchdowns. He hit his stride in the second half of the season, amassing 749 yards and seven scores in his last five games. By the end of the year, few defenders in the SEC could contain — let alone catch — the speedy Vaughn; he led the conference with a blistering 7.9 yards per carry (and that was 1.2 yards more than the second-place back).
But to Vaughn, last season was just a first act.
“I feel like last season went well,” Vaughn says. “Towards the end of the year, it kind of got hot. The plan is to stay hot.”
Vaughn’s rise to SEC playmaker began on the field at Pearl-Cohn, where he turned heads of college coaches as a 2,000-yard rusher during his junior year. He earned Tennessee’s Gatorade Player of the Year and Mr. Football 4A Back of the Year as a senior in 2014, when he rang up 2,646 rushing yards and 45 touchdowns and powered the Firebirds to the state semifinals.
Along the way, the elusive Vaughn earned the nickname Mamba, a nod to his two favorite athletes at the time: shifty running back De’Anthony Thomas of Oregon and NBA legend Kobe Bryant.
Vaughn visited Vanderbilt and connected with head coach Derek Mason during the recruiting process but ultimately settled on Illinois. He started eight games in two seasons with the Illini, amassing 1,024 total rushing yards and nine touchdowns. The Nashville native even earned the team’s Offensive Newcomer of the Year award after rushing for a team-high 723 yards and six touchdowns as a freshman in 2015. Vaughn’s star appeared on the rise in Champaign.
However, a depth chart shakeup in 2016 pushed Vaughn to look elsewhere for a culmination to his college career. That’s when he felt home — and Vanderbilt — calling.
“I knew I wanted to get back home,” Vaughn says. “I felt I had my college experience enough. Coming back home would be great for me, being able to play at an SEC school, get a great degree from an outstanding university. You’ve got to work for everything you get here, in the classroom and on the field. It’s what you make it.”
Vaughn reconnected with Mason and transferred to Vanderbilt ahead of the 2017 season. That fall, he sat out due to NCAA rules but wowed coaches as a scout team running back. With Vanderbilt’s all-time leading rusher Ralph Webb set to graduate, the stage was set for Vaughn to break out in 2018.
During preseason practice that fall, Mason put it bluntly: “I feel like Ke’Shawn Vaughn is the beast we thought he was.”
Mason’s prognosis proved true. The Mamba averaged just 53.5 rushing yards in his first four games last season but exploded for 146 yards and a touchdown on just 17 carries against Tennessee State. He helped Vanderbilt claim its first SEC win at Arkansas with 172 yards and three touchdowns and followed with 182 yards against Missouri.
Last December, Vaughn capped his monster season with a legendary performance in the Texas Bowl against Baylor. He ran for a whopping 243 yards on just 13 carries (18.7 yards per carry) and scored two touchdowns in the loss to the Bears. Vaughn’s rushing tally was the second-highest single-game performance in Vanderbilt history and set a new Texas Bowl record.
“I think he’s an elite back,” Mason said after the bowl game. “I think he is capable, when the time is right, of maybe being a first-round back.”
Vaughn ended the year in possession of the eighth 1,000-yard season in Commodore history despite missing almost two full games. He earned SEC Newcomer of the Year and All-SEC recognition from the Associated Press. Vaughn’s productive debut at Vanderbilt sparked a flirtation with early entry into the NFL Draft; instead, he joined wide receiver Kalija Lipscomb and tight end Jared Pinkney in opting to return to West End for one final season.
The NFL is a likely destination for Vaughn in the future. For now, he only wants to get better.
“I’m a little more comfortable as far as knowing the playbook, but I’m still hard on myself to be consistent and improve,” Vaughn says. “Pass blocking is something I’m really interested in, being better this season and catching out of the backfield and just polishing up the small details here and there.”
Tim Horton, Vanderbilt’s new running backs coach, has mentored five SEC Players of the Year and nine all-conference running backs during the last 12 years as an assistant at Arkansas and Auburn. Horton compares Vaughn’s bruising game to that of Knile Davis, a first-team All-SEC pick with the Razorbacks in 2010. But Horton says he has also been impressed with Vaughn’s demeanor as a workhorse in workouts.
“You don’t know their personality and you don’t know them as people before you get here,” Horton says. “But Ke’Shawn is a very driven person and has been very coachable. He’s eager to learn. You see what he does on the field, but off the field I’ve been very impressed. He wants to get a degree from Vanderbilt and play pro football. He’s trying to be a pro before he hopefully becomes a pro.”
Vaughn won’t sneak up on the SEC in 2019, when Vanderbilt opens the season with a home game against Georgia on Aug. 31. The Commodores must replace all-time leading passer Kyle Shurmur at quarterback but could feature an explosive attack with Lipscomb, Pinkney and Vaughn in tow. Plus, the Vanderbilt program has been to two bowl games in three seasons. That trajectory excites Vaughn.
But Vaughn also keeps his roots in mind. Last season, the player with a NASHVILLE tattoo etched on his left arm routinely played in front of two dozen members of his family at home games at Vanderbilt Stadium. “It’s an energy boost,” he says. “I love it.” That hometown pride is why he finally found his way to Vanderbilt, and each fall Saturday represents an opportunity to show out for his neighborhood.
Vaughn would also like to bring home a Vanderbilt degree. The sociology major is expected to graduate next spring, a chance to make his kin proud just a few miles from home.
“Really, I’m defeating the odds,” Vaughn says. “I’ll probably be the first one in my community and where I’m from to graduate from Vanderbilt. It’s a beautiful thing. That degree is going to pay off so much.”
The soft-spoken Vaughn let his play do the talking in 2018. Now that he’s a veteran presence, though, his teammates have begun to defer to his leadership in huddles. That responsibility has been an adjustment to Vaughn, but he fully recognizes what his role must be for the Commodores to shake up the SEC this fall. In some respects, Vaughn’s ascension to Music City headliner has come full circle.
“I’m kind of adjusting to the fact that I have influence on people,” Vaughn says. “It is really starting to click in my head that that’s real. I get DMs on Instagram all the time from little kids saying they want to go to Vanderbilt and play on the team and everything. I say, ‘If I can do it, you can, too. You’ve just got to put your head down and grind.’”
— Written by Zac Ellis for Athlon Sports
(Top photo courtesy of Vanderbilt Athletics)