Warren Norman, the stage is yours. A few weeks ago, it might have been a hotly contested debate over who 2010's best running back in Tennessee would be - and it would have come down to two names, Norman, and the University of Tennessee's Bryce Brown. Upon the graduations of UT's Montario Hardesty and Memphis's Curtis Steele, the stage had seemingly been set for the two sophomore backs at rival schools to fire up an intense in-state rivalry.
Then, something strange happened. The prized Volunteer back - with the starting job clearly in his sights - left spring practices, casting major doubt over whether he'll return to the field for UT. Maybe it's not entirely strange if you've followed Brown's career at Knoxville - and the turmoil of the Lane Kiffin era. Brown's been haunted by drama throughout his brief NCAA career. What remains to be seen, however, is if the pressure has finally led to his departure from Tennessee.
But, you know what? It doesn't make much difference, he would have been second fiddle to Norman anyway - on the field at least. Brown, no doubt, has the edge over Norman in the Scouting Combine aspects of the game. He runs with more power, runs a faster 40 meter time, and has the body better suited for the pros, but Warren Norman is the guy you want in a game setting. Norman is feel and instinct against Brown's sheer athleticism. While there's no doubt that Brown can still become a great running back, he's still strides behind Vanderbilt's biggest offensive threat on the field. Norman's 2009 campaign was a showcase of what hard work and football IQ can mean for a player.
To compare to the NBA, he's like David West - a player with a solid track record who had been overlooked by scouts more concerned with size and sheer athleticism, allowing him to slip to Vandy. Brown, on the other hand, has been more like Gerald Green - a blue chip prospect with the body and ability to be a superstar, but a player that needs intensive coaching and training to unlock the mental barriers that are keeping him from putting it all together against a high level of competition on a consistent basis.
In their freshman years, the two took divergent paths. Brown, the mega-hyped, top-rated recruit, was hyped as the best running back prospect in the last five years. He started off with a flashy game against Western Kentucky, but was unable to live up to the hype that followed him to Knoxville. Expected to make a major impact from the moment he stepped onto the field, he instead became a solid change of pace back getting 6-10 carries per game behind Hardesty with varying impacts. His SEC resume topped out in 2010 with a nine carry, 60 yard day against South Carolina.
Norman, on the other hand, came to Vanderbilt as a three-star recruit, but was still one of the team's prized additions. Despite this, many fans assumed that he'd be given a slow learning curve, especially playing behind veterans Jared Hawkins and Gaston Miller. Additionally, his position in a recruiting class with three strong running backs seemed to cement his assumed role as a space filler rather than a feature back. Like Brown, a 100-yard game against a low caliber opponent kicked off his season, however, Norman was able to do much more with a limited role than his counterpart.
Norman earned his spot over time with strong performances both in the backfield and on special teams (three kickoffs returned for touchdowns). Norman only averaged 11 carries per game, but gained nearly 4.9 yards per carry and assumed the role of "weapon" in an extremely weak Vanderbilt offense. Norman also showed soft hands out of the backfield as a check-down option in an impotent passing attack. As the season went on, you could see the young back gaining confidence and running with more authority. With Brown, it was nearly the opposite. 2008's #1 ranked recruit lost steam as the season wore on. Though some of his ineffectiveness can be blamed on injury concerns, it's not a stretch to think that mental concerns were wearing down his game and keeping him from playing to his potential.
Both players came to the SEC on ascending paths, but after the latest turn of events, Norman's star has assumed the higher trajectory between the two sophomore backs. His explosiveness will make him the focal point of the Vanderbilt offense, and while Brown will be given the chance to take the reigns if he returns to Tennessee, he's already spotted Warren Norman the first round of what could be a great rivalry. After his initial recruiting debacle, no one knows for sure where Bryce Brown will end up, but with natural gifts like his, teams will be lining up to take a chance on him.
But even if he returns to Knoxville and starts every game for the Vols, he'll be the second best college back in the state. Warren Norman can give the Commodores the dominant rusher that they've lacked in the Bobby Johnson era. The scary thing is, with guys like Wesley Tate and Zac Stacy lining up alongside him, he might not even have to be the SEC prototype workhorse to win games for Vanderbilt. Norman, all 5'10" of him, will have the chance to put this team on his back to get back into bowl contention. If there's one thing we learned from last season, he's up for the challenge.