For the past two seasons, Vanderbilt's offense has stopped and started with Ralph Webb. Even if Kyle Shurmur reaches his potential this fall, the same will probably be true in 2016.
Webb has established himself as the program's best back since Zac Stacy -- and possibly better -- while gaining an average of 1,029 yards per season in his two years as a Commodore. He could gain even more if his Commodores move the needle gauging their quarterback play from "terrible" to merely "competent" this fall. In his two year career, Webb has been the victim of opportunistic defenses with no fear of Vandy's passing attack. Opponents stacked eight players near the line of scrimmage to make things difficult for the young back, but he still found a way to average more than four yards per carry despite matchups where defenders often outnumbered blockers by a wide margin.
While Webb was a bit anonymous on a national level in his first three years on campus, he won't be able to sneak up on opponents in 2016. He was named to the Doak Walker Award watchlist and earned preseason second-team All-SEC honors this summer. He'll be the face of the Vanderbilt offense as coordinator Andy Ludwig waits for a new star to emerge for the Commodores.
Vanderbilt needs their dynamic running back to find holes if it's going to win. In 2015, the team was 3-3 in games against FBS competition when he gained 99 rushing yards or more. It was 0-5 when he was held to 98 or fewer. Those rates will improve as Shurmur develops as a quarterback, but two years under Derek Mason suggest the running game will be the foundation laid for the Commodore offense this fall.
Here's who Ludwig will turn to in 2016.
Ralph Webb, redshirt junior: In only his third season on the active roster, Webb will have an opportunity to rewrite Vanderbilt's record books. He's only 1,084 yards from becoming the team's all-time leading rusher, and a 1,194 yard season would make him the team's single-season record holder as well. Both are, at worst, even-odds bets as opening night looms.
Webb's strength as a runner is his field of vision; he finds holes where there shouldn't be and turns upfield with quickness to convert losses into gains. He's quick enough to prevent all but the fastest defensive backs from catching him from behind, and he's elusive at the line of scrimmage. He's struggled with making defenders miss at the second level, but told reporters earlier this year that juking safeties and turning six yard gains into 19 yard gains was one of his biggest areas of improvement in the offseason.
Webb's growth as a receiver is an important part of the versatility he'll bring to the backfield this fall. After catching 10 passes for 30 yards as a freshman, he bumped those numbers up to 24 and 188 last season. That development will help add an extra dimension to the Vandy offense -- he's more than just a screen pass outlet now -- and will be important for a young quarterback like Shurmur to utilize.
We didn't see what Webb has to offer in the spring game since he was held out due to injury. In the interim, he's gone ahead and promised an opening night victory over South Carolina. If there's anyone on this offense who can back that up, it's Webb.
The Change-of-Pace Backs
Dallas Rivers, junior: Rivers has yet to make good on the athletic promise that made him a four-star recruit out of Stone Mountain, GA, but his bulky frame and breakaway speed still make him a dangerous weapon for the 'Dores. He's never ripped off a run of more than 16 yards in his two years with the team (3.3 yards per carry), and his predisposition to dance around the line of scrimmage rather than blasting his big frame through it has hindered his impact. That's something that will improve as his offensive line does, and the 2016 debuts of guys like Andrew Jelks, Justin Skule, and true freshman center Sean Auwae-McMoore could be a major boon for him.
However, it's still too soon to trust Rivers to be locked in as 1b behind Webb. The athletic ability is there, but the pieces just haven't fit together. If he can't press the ball forward and give Vanderbilt the thunder it needs to complement Webb's lightning, it may be time to stop hoping for a breakout and start looking at him as a career backup.
Josh Crawford, sophomore: Crawford broke into this team's offense last fall as a true freshman, but a lack of effectiveness and concerns about ball protection helped limit him to just 18 carries. He failed to inspire confidence in this year's spring game, where he managed only 16 yards despite getting more touches (eight) than anyone else on the roster. He's still young, and has the quick feet and frame needed to be an effective NCAA back, However, he may not be different enough than Webb to be a true change-of-pace guy or good enough to carve out his own role in Ralph's wheelhouse.
The New Guys
Jaire George, redshirt freshman: What does Eddie George's son bring to the table? He was the team's most effective running back in the team's spring game, and his combination of field vision and straight line speed led to some solid gains the past year. He'll get his first real game experience this season, and we'll see if his strong practice showings can translate to the big leagues. Physical concerns could be an issue here; he's had his past two seasons cut short by injury.
Khari Blasingame, redshirt sophomore: Blasingame, at 6'1 and 235 pounds, will spend his first season in the backfield after spending his first two years on campus as a safety and linebacker. He'll give the Commodores another short yardage bulldozer, but questions remain about his straight line speed and escapability. He wasn't especially fast as a defensive back, but he moves well laterally, has fluid hips, and was a solid tailback at Buckhorn High School in Alabama.
He plowed into the end zone from a yard out and finished with 18 yards on four other carries in the Black and Gold Game, so there's a chance he works his way into the rotation if Rivers and Crawford disappoint. He'll be a powerful weapon out of the backfield for Vanderbilt, but he'll have to impress this August to work his way into the backfield in 2016.
Jamauri Wakefield, freshman: Wakefield was one of Vanderbilt's targets in 2016 after emerging as a bruising high school back. The 215-pound runner doesn't shy away from contact, but his ability to make defenders miss in the open field were what drew Derek Mason's attention last fall. He chops up his steps to make quick changes near the line of scrimmage, but once he hits the open field he's got a long, loping stride few high school defenders could catch up with. We'll see how that translates to the SEC, but possibly not until 2017. With five other running backs on the depth chart, a redshirt year could be in order.
Kyle Anderton, sophomore: Anderton, a former high school quarterback, can line up all over the field but will likely be deployed as an H-back in his biggest role this season. He had just one reception as a true freshman and he made it count, scoring a touchdown in a 21-17 win over Kentucky. He's not going to see many -- or any -- carries, but he'll add a competent set of hands and a solid blocking skillset to the Vanderbilt backfield.