Vanderbilt’s running game has steadily gotten better each year under Derek Mason. The disastrous 2014 season featured a mostly ineffective run game that averaged 3.4 yards per attempt. With the switch from Karl Dorrell to Andy Ludwig following that dumpster fire, 2015 saw a somewhat improved run game (3.8 yards per attempt) that also ran the damn ball about 10 extra times per game.
In 2016, running the ball finally became effective. Vanderbilt averaged 38.2 rushing attempts per game (slightly down from 2015, actually) but averaged 4.3 yards per carry. Even better, Vanderbilt’s top two ball carriers are back, as are the two main depth guys, the fullback, and a promising redshirt freshman. This might be Vanderbilt’s deepest position group entering 2017.
The Speed Guy
Ralph Webb, redshirt senior: There’s not really a whole lot else to say about Ralph Webb. He’s gone from a signing day afterthought in 2013 — he was, per 247 Sports, the second-lowest rated non-kicker in that class — to being Vanderbilt’s all-time leader in rushing yards. And he still has a year of eligibility remaining.
There’s some talk that Webb could pass Darren McFadden for second all-time in the SEC record book (though Nick Chubb might wind up ahead of Webb); Webb would need 1,243 more yards to pass McFadden. But that assumes that Webb gets a lot of carries again. Notably, Webb actually had 27 fewer carries in 2016 than the year before, though he rushed for more yards because he improved his yards per carry from 4.2 to 5.1. Webb essentially was the Vanderbilt offense (to the extent that you could call it an “offense”) in 2014 and 2015, but an improved passing game meant that the offense was less reliant on him in 2016. That also had to do with the emergence of...
The Power Guy
Khari Blasingame, redshirt junior: The converted linebacker emerged as Vanderbilt’s second running back in 2016. Blasingame rushed for nearly as many touchdowns (10, to Ralph Webb’s 13) in spite of getting 97 carries on the season to Webb’s 250. While Webb was the workhorse, Blasingame’s punishing running style made him an excellent guy to have for short-yardage situations.
His main job was to reduce Webb’s workload, and that he did well, notching 97 carries for 449 yards. Of course, a lot of the reason for the increased effectiveness of the running game had to do with the offensive line, but Blasingame shares some credit for Vanderbilt nearly tripling its number of rushing TDs from 9 to 26. He’ll likely continue to function as the third-down and short-yardage back in 2017.
Dallas Rivers, senior: The emergence of Blasingame led to a reduced role for Rivers, who was Vanderbilt’s main change-of-pace back in 2014 and 2015. Rivers had 121 total carries in his first two years at Vanderbilt and 20 in all of 2016, as Blasingame usurped almost all of his playing time. He only saw action in eight games, and through the first ten games of the season he’d notched 12 carries for a measly 25 yards, finding the end zone just once (in the MTSU game.)
And then, between the Ole Miss and Tennessee games, Rivers got eight carries and ran for 67 yards. That raised his season yards-per-carry average to a respectable 4.6, which was as good as Blasingame’s average. But with Webb and Blasingame figuring to get the lion’s share of carries in 2017, it’s not clear where Rivers fits in.
Josh Crawford, junior: One of the more obnoxious features of the first two years of the Derek Mason era was his tendency to burn redshirts for seemingly no particular reason, and Crawford was one of those: Crawford got 18 carries for 54 yards as a true freshman in 2015, with 15 of those coming in three games, and since Crawford didn’t play in the Austin Peay game that year, it seems to have been the goal to redshirt him at one point.
Last year, Crawford got even fewer carries (14) and while he rushed for a decent 4.7 yards per carry, much of that is inflated by the Tennessee State game. Against FBS competition, Crawford carried 8 times for 17 yards. And entering 2017, he’s closer to fifth on the depth chart than to third.
Jamauri Wakefield, redshirt freshman: Wakefield, listed at 6’1” and 220 pounds, is another big back in the same mold as Blasingame and Rivers. Wakefield will probably play a limited role in 2017 — but that speaks more to the impressive depth that Vanderbilt has stockpiled in the backfield than anything about Wakefield, whose combination of speed and power could make him a feature back down the road.
Illinois transfer Ke’Shawn Vaughn deserves a mention, even though he won’t play in 2016. Vaughn ran for 1024 yards and 9 touchdowns in two years with the Illini and will be in line to play a big role ... in 2018.
Bailey McElwain, sophomore: McElwain came on board late, only joining the team in July after going back on an earlier plan to enroll at prep school in hopes of getting admitted to Stanford in 2017. Instead, he became an immediate starter at fullback for the Commodores. There are lots of reasons why Vanderbilt’s run game became more effective in 2016, but McElwain’s role as a lead blocker can’t be understated. He also caught six passes for 35 yards and scored touchdowns against Ole Miss and Tennessee.
Redshirt sophomore Jaire George, who hasn’t played in two years at Vanderbilt, is now listed as a fullback on the roster as well.