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Vanderbilt Football 2021 Position Previews: Running Back

If we thought quarterback was set, running back is the exact opposite of that.

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Mississippi State Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

On Thursday, I wrote about Vanderbilt’s quarterback room and the relative stability of that position from 2020 to 2021. Today I write about the running back room and... it’s the exact opposite of that.

First, Vanderbilt averaged 3.0 yards per carry on the ground last season and only some of that was the result of sacks (Ken Seals, on the season, had 41 rushing attempts for -52 yards, and only some of those were actual rush attempts.) Second, the team’s leading rusher, Keyon Henry-Brooks, transferred after a season in which he rushed for 494 yards and two touchdowns on 120 carries. Gone, too, is the team’s third-leading rusher, Jamauri Wakefield, who graduated and evidently opted not to take advantage of the NCAA’s free year of eligibility. (Or he did, but he’s not doing it at Vanderbilt.)

In short, this is a deeply unsettled situation, with two returnees, three newcomers, and basically no proven commodities. Vanderbilt will enter camp with maybe three or four guys who could emerge as the primary running back; more likely, they’ll go with a committee approach. In any case, it’s hardly ideal.

(As a note, I didn’t do this with the quarterbacks, but going forward I am listing players’ actual eligibility situations instead of going off the team site, which doesn’t denote redshirts for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. With that said, I’m not considering it a redshirt if you played in 2020 and wouldn’t qualify for a redshirt under normal circumstances.)

Ja’Veon Marlow, redshirt junior: I’ve always been a fan of Marlow’s compact running style, and the 5’11”, 195-pound back from Winter Haven, Florida, has good speed. Staying on the field, though, has been a problem: in 2019, he was limited to eight games due to injury, and last season, though he appeared in four games with two starts, he missed time due to a suspension. With 274 yards on 61 carries in his career, he has some experience, and he rushed for 186 yards on 46 carries last season — a 4.0 yards per carry average isn’t great, but then nobody was doing much behind Vanderbilt’s patchwork offensive line.

Marlow is probably a slight favorite to start in 2021, if only by default, but there might be a better option among the newcomers.

Rocko Griffin, sophomore: Griffin’s debut, as a 5’9”, 205-pound true freshman from Rincon, Georgia, wasn’t great, with 92 yards on 37 carries, and I’m unable to decide if he’s a speedy back like Marlow or more of a power runner. That can be a good thing — since, obviously, speed and power is a good combo — but whatever it was, it wasn’t working in 2020. Then again, nothing was working in the running game, and Griffin did at least post a solid performance in the Florida game with five carries for 25 yards. On the other hand, his outing at Mississippi State — 19 yards on 13 carries — was rough. But there’s a non-zero chance he emerges as the starter this season.

Re’Mahn Davis, junior: An iffy running back room needed help and might have gotten it in the form of Davis, a transfer from Temple who rushed for 936 yards on 193 carries and eight touchdowns as a true freshman in 2019, before only playing in four games in 2020. The 5’9”, 215-pound back from San Francisco could easily emerge as Vanderbilt’s leading rusher in 2021, and he also is a receiving threat out of the backfield, with 243 yards on 27 catches in his two-year career at Temple (how many of those were screen passes and the like, I don’t know.)

Dylan Betts-Pauley, freshman: Of the two freshmen at the position, Betts-Pauley, a 5’11”, 225-pound back from Hoover, Alabama, seems like the more likely one to get on the field early, if only because he offers size that Vanderbilt doesn’t otherwise have at the position. As you might expect, he has a powerful running style and doesn’t shy away from contact.

Patrick Smith, freshman: Smith was a late addition to the 2021 recruiting class out of Absecon, New Jersey, where he rushed 221 times for 1,719 yards and 16 touchdowns as a senior at Holy Spirit. In some ways, he seems like he could be a late bloomer from an underscouted area (South Jersey) who could have flown under the radar. At the same time, at 5’10” and 185 pounds, he probably doesn’t offer Vanderbilt anything immediately that they wouldn’t also get from Ja’Veon Marlow, and that’s on the small side for an SEC back. This is probably a name that’s of interest for 2022 or 2023.