First things first; the running game will be the strength of the 2015 Vanderbilt Commodores. Vanderbilt has actually had a long line of rushing talents in recent years - Zac Stacy, Wesley Tate, Jerron Seymour - so when Ralph Webb burst onto the scene in last year's spring game, everybody here at AoG was questioning where he would fit into the rotation with both Seymour and Brian Kimbrow expected to have breakout season. One year later, that problem is no longer an issue. Vanderbilt has a backfield who can not only carry the rock, they can do it with both power and speed.
This is part of the plan, and has been since Stanford started coming back to relevance. It isn't uncommon to see someone like Willie Taggart (now with USF) or other coaches who have splintered off (Derek Mason at Vanderbilt) to use a similar approach. Let's take a look at the ground and pound attack Vanderbilt will have this season.
Ralph Webb, RB, Rs. SO - The crown jewel of the Vanderbilt running core is Webb. He has impressed scouts with his speed and his ability to cut since his days as a high school tailback. He's now bigger (5'10", 202 lbs), but his low center of gravity makes for a very shifty runner. The most impressive thing about Ralph Webb may be his vision. Often overlooked for some of the bigger backs in Florida (looking at you Derek Henry) Ralph Webb offers his own style that contributes greatly to the team. He doesn't need a big hole, just a little light and he can be off to the races. My favorite part about Ralph Webb? His attitude. He legitimately wants to be at Vanderbilt and wants to make his team and himself a better person. In the offseason he talked about getting better in pass protection and route running. Growing up in the shadows of the swamp, this was one heck of a steal for the Dores.
2014 Stats: 212 carries, 907 yards, 4 touchdowns rushing, 10 receptions, 30 yards, 0 receiving touchdowns.
2015 Projection: I think Ralph Webb may get around 200 carries again, that seems to be a good mark for him physically against some of the SEC defenses Vanderbilt is going to face. I'm looking for more from the supporting cast around Webb. I would actually argue that the fewer carries Webb has the better he can be, maybe the 180 range is just right for Webb to keep him explosive. Even though I wouldn't be shocked if Vanderbilt leaned on him more with another year of strength training under his belt. I'd venture to guess that's not the ideal goal. I think Webb goes for 1,000 yards, maybe adds some more receptions, and totals about the same number of touchdowns.
Dallas Rivers, RB, SO: I expect Dallas Rivers to be GREATLY improved this season. While he was good in spots last year, he was just a true freshman with no experience in the spring game and only the summer workouts to fall back on. That being said, he did one heck of a job for a first year player last season and leaves us with a lot of expectations. He's been working with a big time strength coach who came to Vanderbilt from Nebraska, one of the most historically great programs in the game. This 6'1", 224 lb tailback is exactly what the blueprint calls for.
Andy Ludwig historically has had great success with a variety of backs at Wisconsin. If he can institute a similar scheme I expect that Dallas Rivers will take off big time this year. Now that he has started running behind his pads and playing with a level of anger when he runs, he could become one of the SEC's more underrated running backs.
2014 Stats: 61 carries, 218 yards, 2 touchdowns rushing, 1 reception, 7 yards, 0 receiving touchdowns.
2015 Projection: I'm expecting a huge year from Dallas Rivers, as in similar to Ralph Webb kind of year. Is it a little early? Perhaps, but the way Arkansas has used their two backs, the way Wisconsin has used their two backs, and the way Stanford recently has used two backs sets the precedent for the type of game I think we're looking for. Last year Jonathon Williams and Alex Collins both accounted for 1100+ yards apiece for the Razorbacks. I expect this type of output from Dallas Rivers. I think he takes at least 150-200 carries, 850-1000 yards, and has around 10 touchdowns. What makes me think this?
Alright, so he isn't the fastest back we have...but did you see the way he ran through that hole? That's what Coach Mason has been looking for. I don't know if we have ever had a back that big running that hard. Kind of fun to watch, especially with a former defensive tackle leading him. (Shoutout to Murf for letting me hijack his GIF).
Josh Crawford, RB, Freshman: This is how low Vanderbilt is on running backs; assuming that Darrius Sims doesn't float back to the backfield then we've got a true freshman in the third spot. While this isn't the time nor place to question recruiting, one must wonder if a JUCO back wouldn't have helped here to allow us to redshirt one of the younger guys. As it stands if one young guy must play I think it's going to be Crawford. He has really great vision and is smooth with the ball in his hands. The only downside with him is that, like Rivers in 2014, he didn't come early in the spring, didn't play in the spring game, and has only had the summer working out to get ready for the upcoming year. I love Crawford. I think his vision and his cuts are very precise and when he cuts he gets downhill in a hurry. However, in an ideal situation or ideal world I would have liked to have him redshirted a year and then see where he is after next spring.
2015 Projection: I don't know how much he helps, or if he gets the nod over our next back. If I had to guess I wouldn't think he would get over 200-300 yards right away, especially if Vandy feeds the beasts that are Webb/Rivers. But someone will be around in case of injury or fatigue, and my guess is Crawford will be able to provide a change of pace to both Webb and Rivers. He's more of the middle man and I'd expect him to get some carries in a game where Vandy has a big lead (assuming we get that at least once) against an opponent like WKU or MTSU or, most likely, Austin Peay. I'll expect him to get better as the season goes on and maybe be able to contribute against a later game opponent for a drive or two.
Jaire George, RB, Freshman: This freshman has a familiar name. The son of Eddie George has a chance to play right away as well. He has more size than Josh Crawford and runs more like a true power back than Crawford does. At the same time, he hasn't taken many reps at running back since his junior year of high school. There is no denying that he can do it, but the question is whether or not he's ready to do it against SEC opponents. In an ideal world we'd be able to redshirt both George and Crawford as both seem to have a lot of potential, but one of these two will be leaned on to spell our tailbacl platoon in 2015. I think if you're looking for someone who might be more ready size wise, you're looking at George. If you want someone more ready fundamentally, you're looking at Crawford.
2015 Projection: Similar to Crawford, except I think he might be more useful as the season wears on. Once Coach Bankins cleans up his fundamentals and gets him doing the little things right, George could be like Dallas Rivers was last year and be a useful piece by midseason. His size helps in this offense, and while Crawford is bigger than Webb now, he hasn't spent two full seasons in a college level weight program. I think George could be the future at Vandy with Crawford, but I'd feel a lot better if one of these two would be redshirting this season.
That's it right? Wait a minute...
Jay Hockaday, ATH, Freshman: This one is a shocker, listed on Vanderbilt's team page is Jay Hockaday, an athlete from CPA. He was an excellent two way player in 3A football in the state of Tennessee. This offers us a little bit of relief I think as his listing as an athlete helps Vanderbilt a lot. If he's a kid who can contribute at either linebacker or running back he could give the 'Dores the space to redshirt one of the other backs. It would give Vanderbilt depth and security in terms of their redshirts and not having too many backs clustered together in the same class. I think this is a good fit in the backfield as he is 6 ft 3 and 215 lbs - too small to be a linebacker. Maybe he slides in as a safety, but a linebacker is a hard pitch for me. Hockaday could be a special teams ace as he adds weight, but long term I have no idea where he fits.
2015 Projection: Possible safety blanket. If he can fit anywhere else on the roster defensively I think you can use him this season. While it seems ideal to redshirt him judging by his tape I could see him being a great addition to special teams and as a rotational guy. I don't know if he's fast enough to play safety or if he's big enough to play ILB...but he is big enough to be a RB and could perhaps pitch in on special teams, take reps as a back while one of our true RBs is redshirting then shift back to LB or SS after he adds weight.
Other options: If we get injuries in the backfield Darrius Sims could always make the switch back, Ladarius Banks and Chris Martin are two interior defense tackles who look to lead the way for our backs, in a pinch they could take some carries. The options are going to be there for us to use, though in an ideal world we get a redshirt on one of our true freshman backs and roll with three and the athlete for the season. There is also the possibility of a late season transfer, much like Dudchock and Dorrell were last season. While neither made a huge impact, we're looking for depth and security more than anything else at this point.
Final thoughts: Webb and Rivers are the lifeblood of this football team. Andy Ludwig loves to use multiple backs, especially ones who rely on different running styles. I think Webb/Rivers is going to carry us to a point where whoever is at quarterback doesn't need to make big plays. If Webb has a huge year we could see him leave early, though his personality seems like he would like to stay in school at Vanderbilt. We're going to recruit some more depth at tailback (Sam Brodner looks great so far, maybe one more joins up), but for right now I think we've got a fantastic group of running backs (part of the reason I wanted to cover this group). I believe everyone on this list (with exception of Hockaday) can be a 1,000 yard rusher. That's how well scouted we are and that's how much faith I have in Coach Bankins, whose an excellent special teams guy, excellent recruiter, and a great running backs coach. Vandy's bowl hopes for 2015 will rest on the shoulders of two overlooked and underrated backs.