The situation at running back got so dire for Vanderbilt in 2021 that the Commodores moved a true freshman who’d been recruited to play defensive back into the offensive backfield.
Suffice to say, this wasn’t the plan. In fact, the plan was to lean pretty heavily on Re’Mahn Davis, a transfer from Temple — through the first two games of the season, Davis commanded 32 carries and all other Vanderbilt running backs combined for 12 carries. Then Davis was lost for the season, and things got ... weird.
Davis is back, and so are the three other running backs who saw the field in 2021, as well as another guy who redshirted and three incoming players. There are a lot of bodies in the running back room this season, but saying this is a deep position group is, well... not accurate. At least, not from first glance.
The Starter Presumptive
Re’Mahn Davis, redshirt junior: Davis was well on his way to having a nice season as Vanderbilt’s feature back after transferring from Temple; he ran for 211 yards on 44 carries and a touchdown, with his best performance coming in the third game against Stanford, with 12 carries for 76 yards and a touchdown. It was also the last time we’d see him in 2021; Davis missed the rest of the season and in his absence, the running back room descended into chaos. Assuming Davis is healthy, I’d expect him to command most of the carries for Vanderbilt in 2022.
Rocko Griffin, junior: Griffin ended up being the team’s leading rusher, but his 517-yard performance was the lowest number for Vanderbilt’s leading rusher in a 12-game season since Warren Norman led the 2010 team with 459 yards, though Norman only played in eight games that season. (For a player who actually played a full season, that would be current running backs coach Norval McKenzie leading the team in rushing yards in 2004.) Griffin was able to carry a workload in Davis’s absence; on the other hand, his 3.6 yards per carry average was... not great. Some of that might have been on the offensive line, of course, but it was notably worse than Davis and Patrick Smith.
Patrick Smith, sophomore: I was expecting Smith, who’d been the Offensive Player of the Year in New Jersey but wasn’t highly regarded as a recruit, to redshirt last season; instead, he played in ten games, got 82 carries, and ran for 360 yards. I would expect Smith to assume the primary backup role ahead of Griffin, mostly because he offers something different than what defenses will see with Davis as he’s a fast, shifty back at 5’10” and 180 pounds.
Dylan Betts-Pauley, redshirt freshman: I thought he hadn’t played at all in 2021, but apparently he got two carries (for zero yards) in the Georgia game. Who knew? Anyway, at 5’11” and 240 pounds, it should probably be sort of obvious what kind of back Betts-Pauley projects to be, but reports out of camp last year that I saw weren’t positive. We’ll see if he finds a role this season.
James Ziglor III, sophomore: I didn’t know whether to put Ziglor here or with the defensive backs, but he’s now listed as a running back on the roster so he goes here, I guess. Ziglor got 13 carries for 41 yards and also saw some action as a kick returner last season. Who knows if he sticks at running back, but he’ll find a role on the field somewhere.
Cooper Lutz, redshirt senior: Lutz transferred in from Syracuse, where he got 60 yards on 17 carries last season and also served as a kick returner. Granted, in 2020 he had 246 yards on 43 carries (for a cool 5.7 yards per carry), so there may be a little bit more upside here; but he’s pretty clearly not being brought in to push Re’Mahn Davis aside.
Maurice Edwards, freshman: This one’s promising. At 6’0” and 195 pounds, Edwards has good size and speed; and as an early enrollee, there’s a decent chance that Edwards will be ready to contribute in the fall. Again, there are a lot of bodies here but aside from Re’Mahn Davis, there isn’t anybody in this group who I would say will definitely be in line for playing time ahead of him.
Chase Gillespie, freshman: Where Edwards projects as a feature back, Gillespie — at 5’9” and 180 pounds — projects as more of a change-of-pace guy. There’s less of a chance of moving ahead of Patrick Smith for that role in 2022, though he’s a guy to keep an eye on for the future.