Bad news struck the Commodore faithful Wednesday. Coach James Franklin announced that junior tailback Warren Norman may miss the entire 2011 season thanks to a leg injury.
"Right now, Warren is our emergency running back," Franklin said in yesterday's press conference. "We are not going to play him unless we need to. There is a possibility of redshirting him."
Norman's spot on the sidelines means that Zac Stacy and Jerron Seymour will continue to split touches at running back, with Micah Powell getting mop-up duty. It's hard to imagine how dire the situation would have to get for Franklin to put in an injured Norman while simultaneously burning his redshirt year. The junior has missed all four games this season despite being listed on the team's depth chart each week.
This is a big blow for the Commodores. Norman is an athlete who is so talented that we boldly dropped the "Best College Running Back in Tennessee" label on him after his freshman year. The diminutive speedster made an immediate mark in Nashville as a tailback and kick return specialist his first season. That year, he rushed for 783 yards and added three kick return touchdowns to claim the SEC Freshman of the Year award. However, his career since then has been plagued by injuries.
Norman missed big chunks of his sophomore campaign thanks to ankle and arm injuries. A dislocated wrist closed the books on his 2010 season and forced Gaston Miller into the limelight as the team's featured back. This year, he's been hampered by a knee injury that has left the team fumbling at an official return date. Wednesday's press conference was the most concrete news we've heard about Norman's injury timeline, but Coach Franklin still made it a point to suggest that the talented junior could still find the field, maybe even as early as the next few weeks.
Still, the team may be planning to chug along without him. Freshman Mitchell Hester was listed on the team's depth chart for the first time in his career this week. He'll be the second-string punt returner. Hester is a small running back with great lateral quickness and the ability to break away from tacklers thanks to explosive speed. However, he hasn't seen any game action in 2011 and playing him against Alabama would effectively burn his redshirt for the season.
So is Franklin looking to Hester as an insurance policy for Norman? It's possible. Recent history suggests that Vanderbilt tailbacks can go down with injury at any time, and Norman's status as emergency back may not be as important as getting him at full strength for an extra season. The team is playing this situation close to its vest, but it's probably a bad sign for Warren Norman's playing prospects in 2011 if we see Mitchell Hester take the field against Alabama.