In 2010, we heralded Warren Norman as the best running back in the state of Tennessee. Now, after two injury-riddled seasons, the elusive do-everything back will have the chance to back up our bold claims.
Norman has faded into the background as a forgotten man over the course of Zac Stacy's breakout season, but that doesn't mean that he's not dangerous. The SEC's all-time leader in all-purpose yards is finally healthy and looking to make his mark on a rising Commodore team. Norman was cleared for spring practices earlier this April, and while he didn't play in the spring game due to health concerns, there's plenty of optimism surrounding his return to Dudley Field this August.
The redshirt junior made an immediate impact upon his arrival at Vanderbilt. Despite a relatively unheralded high school career, Norman's first game in black and gold ended with 105 rushing yards and two touchdowns. He finished the season with a 4.9 yard-per-carry average and led the team with 783 yards, the most of any Commodore since Kwane Doster in 2002. More importantly, his 1,941 all-purpose yards set team and conference records. There were games, notably in a 13-16 loss to Army, where Norman wasn't just featured on offense - he was the team's offense.
Then, the injuries hit. He missed five games at the end of 2010 due to a dislocated wrist. His 2011 was erased entirely due to a lingering knee injury. Norman attempted to rehab through the pain and was often listed as a member of the team's depth chart, but didn't play a snap last season. This extensive rehab process held him out of much of Vandy's spring work.
In that meantime, Norman has gone from being the best back in the Volunteer State to not even being the best back on his own team. Vanderbilt fans dealt with the frustration of seeing Norman's name on the depth chart each Wednesday and continually being told that the junior was "at about 80-90%." Every week teased the promise of his return, but as Norman rehabbed, Stacy slid into his role. By the time Stacy was putting up 100-yard efforts against SEC foes, Coach Franklin and his staff quietly announced that they were shutting Vandy's former SEC Freshman of the Year down for a redshirt season.
The Commodores won six games without Norman thanks to James Franklin's cultural resurgence on Natchez Trace. It's difficult to gauge just how much better this team would have been with him. Vanderbilt squandered several close games last season where an extra gear on offense could have been the difference between victory and defeat. Notably, games against Arkansas, Tennessee, and Florida could have benefitted from Norman's experience in the backfield and on special teams.
The other side of the story is Stacy's emergence as a revelation at tailback. For the first two years of their careers at Vanderbilt Norman was 1A and Stacy was 1B at tailback. The two combined to create a solid platoon, but their running game wasn't as effective as Stacy's was as a singular presence in 2011. Much of this could be attributed to an improved passing game - it's no coincidence that Vanderbilt's running game improved when Jordan Rodgers took over for Larry Smith - but you can't discount the passion and strength that Stacy brought to the team as their lead back.
Stacy will likely bring that intensity back to the lineup in 2012 as the first name on the depth chart, but he'll have an even more effective change-of-pace guy behind him in Norman. Jerron Seymour filled in admirably in the tailback rotation in 2011, but he'll cede carries to the more established Norman in the coming year.
So what will Warren Norman's role be as he returns to the lineup this season? That's a question that gives James Franklin a happy problem to solve. Norman's versatility and Stacy's emergence at tailback should give the team free rein to unleash the redshirt junior on special teams, where he had three return touchdowns as a freshman. He'll also fit in to Stacy's old role as 1B on the RB chart, giving the 'Dores a running attack that, when healthy, will rank amongst the best in the SEC.
Last season proved that the team's success does not hinge on the health of one of their biggest performers. However, it's clear that Warren Norman's presence will make this team better. He brings an elusive athlete to the backfield and an explosive option to Vanderbilt's special teams. While he'll have an uphill battle to reclaim his starting spot, there's no doubt that he's a valuable rotation member at RB when he's healthy. For James Franklin and his staff, that trick will be getting him through a 12-game season for the first time in his career.