For four years, Ralph Webb was the best thing about Derek Mason’s Vanderbilt offense. The unheralded recruit from Gainesville developed from overlooked underclassman to unquestioned starter thanks to his ability to churn low-percentage carries into first downs. More impressively, he did so despite wearing a massive target as his team’s only real scoring threat for much of his tenure in Nashville.
That led Webb into Vanderbilt’s record books as the program’s all-time leading rusher. No player in school history ran for more yards (4,178) or touchdowns (32). But despite that loaded resume, he’s no lock to hear his name called at this year’s NFL draft.
Webb’s stock was climbing after a brilliant 2016 where he ran for nearly 1,300 yards and 13 touchdowns, but a disappointing senior season has raised questions about his NFL future. He was held largely in check last fall, setting career lows in both rush yards and attempts. Teams like Missouri and Middle Tennessee State, not widely known for their defensive prowess, held him to fewer than three yards per carry. The consistency that made him one of the SEC’s best runners disappeared, and while Kyle Shurmur and an improved passing game took some of the team’s offensive burden from his shoulders, it was clear he wasn’t the defense-frustrating threat he’d been in years past.
But the workhorse tailback still proved he could carve up SEC competition. His first 100-yard game of the season came in a 163-yard, two touchdown performance against Ole Miss. He matched that performance in his last — this time against arch-rival Tennessee. Unfortunately for Webb, those games also came against the 123rd and 125th-ranked rushing defenses in the FBS. NFL executives will be wondering if his big numbers in 2017 were empty stats when they sort out their 2018 draft wish lists.
Can Webb be the second Vanderbilt running back to be drafted since 1981?
The best comparison for Webb may be the man whose spot he usurped atop Vandy’s record books. Zac Stacy didn’t have the early success Webb did in Nashville, but emerged as an All-SEC tailback by chewing up defenses as a junior and senior. He ran for 2,334 yards and 14 touchdowns in his final two seasons in Nashville, making himself a fifth-round pick of the St. Louis Rams in the process.
Stacy was the counterbalance to a flourishing passing game that featured Jordan Matthews and Jonathan Krause, so he didn’t face the same kind of defensive focus that Webb did. In recent years, opponents would frequently draw eight men to the line of scrimmage and dare passers like Wade Freebeck or Stephen Rivers or Johnny McCrary to beat them through the air. That makes a straight-up review of their college numbers an imperfect comparison.
But there’s still an important distinction lurking in their career yard-per-carry averages. Stacy averaged 5.4 yards each time he touched the ball; Webb’s college number is nearly a full yard less at 4.5. While Webb’s vision and ability to spin straw into gold were what made him one of the best Commodores to ever take the field, he was missing that extra gear that made defenders miss in the second level and turned five-yard gains into 20. How many times can you remember Webb breaking through the line of scrimmage, finding daylight, and then getting caught up on a shoestring tackle by the last man he had to beat?
Webb’s pro day workout — he wasn’t invited to the Combine — showcased the athleticism to turn those solid gains into breakout plays:
He’s always been ferocious in practice and in the weight room. The question for NFL scouts is whether he combination of strength and athleticism will be enough to overcome a lackluster senior season.
The problem with Webb, who was a tremendous college running back, is that his numbers paint a misleading picture. As good as he was at Vanderbilt and as many records as he set, he played even better. Webb’s per-carry numbers don’t leap off the page because he was often stuck behind a below-average offensive line and supported by one of the SEC’s least effective passing games. The fact he set the records he did was a testament to his skill and perseverance.
That’s the kind of behavior that will lead to next-level success in the right situation. Webb’s current draft projections have him selected somewhere from the fifth round on. That will make him a bargain if he can have the kind of positive impact he had at Vanderbilt. He exceeded expectations throughout his college career until a downturn in 2017 -- and while that hurt his draft stock in 2018, it won’t make his journey to the NFL anything he can’t handle.