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2018 Vanderbilt Football Position Previews: Running Backs

NCAA Football: SEC Football Media Day Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

2017 was a down year for the rushing game, even with all time leading rusher, Ralph Webb. Webb had run for over 1,000 yards in the previous two seasons, but failed to break the barrier last year. It was a surprising turn considering the offense returned nine starters.

Running back can be a difficult position to assess because it is so contingent on the performance of the offensive line. Great OL’s can make an average back look great, and bad OL’s can make great backs look mediocre. It’s possible Webb was victim to a weaker OL despite it having good experience. Or maybe it was a brutal middle of the schedule, and conference defenses game planned for him. Or maybe some tread came off the tire the way it does with highly utilized backs. The truth, as always, is complex and probably a combination of the above.

Let me suggest the Ewing Theory. It is a silly little phrase that Bill Simmons likes to use to suggest that when an important player from a team leaves, the team gets better because that player no longer requires a majority of the touches. It’s more pertinent to basketball because 1/5 of a team is greater than 1/11 (really 1/6 of eligible players on offense). Nonetheless, it is plausible that with Webb gone, a galvanized OL, and an experience Schurmur the Commodore offense can distribute the ball to more playmakers, starting with Ke’Shawn Vaughn.

The Home Run Threat

Ke’Shawn Vaughn, RS Junior: Vaughn is a native Nashvillian who went to Pearl Cohn High School. He was a four star recruit by Rivals and 237 and a three star by ESPN. He signed with Illinois and transferred after the 2016 season when the Illini changed their coaching staff.

At Illinois, Vaughn averaged 4.6 yards on 157 carries in 2015. In 2016 he averaged 5.0 yards on 60 carries. What stands out about both seasons is Vaughn’s propensity to run away from defenses. He had long runs of 65, 29, 45, and 28 yards against UNC, Purdue, Michigan, and Minnesota respectively. His attempts fell dramatically after the second game of the 2016 season, but with minimal touches, of 2, 7, and 7, in the latter three games, he was still able to break away for chunk plays.

What is concerning about his style of play, though, is his inability to gain 3+ yards per carry and be a workhorse back that can move the chains when necessary. For example, if you remove his long runs from every game except UNC, Vaughn’s average drops below 3 YPC. Nonetheless, he is 5’10” 215lbs, which, with his speed, can make him difficult to bring down, but that does not mean he can be the battering ram necessary.

With a good OL and experienced QB, Vaughn can be a home run threat, even against the speedy SEC defenses. Hopefully, he will also be the every down that requires second level defenders respect the hand off and open up the passing game off play action.

The Back Up

Khari Blasingame, Senior: Khari Blasingame is 6’1” 235lb and the projected back up to Vaughn. Behind Webb, he ran for 449 yards last year for 4.6 yards per carry in 2016 and 147 yards on 45 attempts in 2017. He is a bigger back than Vaughn and has experience in the offense. It does speak to Blasingame’s speed to not be the projected starter.

Even with his role as the number two last year, he only took 45 hand offs and no more than 8 in a game. He can be the complementary back to Vaughn and see his role as a battering ram type or as a spell back.

If the Commodores look to control time of possession with a run first offense, Blasingame will be an integral part of the plan. If the offense tries to spread the defense out, then Blasingame doesn’t seem to be a match up advantage against any conference defender he’ll face,

The Reserves

Jamauri Wakefield, RS SO and Josh Crawford, RS Junior:

Wakefield is a bigger back at 6’1” 220lbs. He’s a sophomore out of Providence School in Jacksonville. He was a three star by 247 and ESPN and a two star by Rivals. Wakefield did not receive offers from any other SEC program except UF, and at the time he was offered, UF was, how do I say, in the Treon Harris era.

A majority of his attempts came against Alabama A&M last with a respectable 64 yards on 15 carries. His second highest number of attempts was against UT. He had four carries contributing 26 of the 246 total rushing yards in the game. If you recall, that was part of a 42-24 drubbing.

It’s possible that Wakefield becomes the number two back if he can grasp the offense. He has a similar build to Blasingame and potentially more speed. It would be a nice weapon to have another big back to help control the ball and time of possession. Control of the rushing game often opens the pass and would hopefully yield a higher point total than the 24.6 points per game from 2017.

Crawford is 5’10” 202lbs a RS Junior who redshirted last year due to the depth at the position. This is his fourth year on campus. He contributed to the scout team last year, and is a scholarship RB. Nonetheless, this kind of scenario lends itself to a player earning his degree and parting ways by Spring Semester.

Crawford was not highly recruited out of high school. This is not to suggest he could not have improved over his time in the program, yet with a back like Vaughn who has the same build but more speed, Crawford will not have the opportunities to take carries if and when Vaughn is available and needed.