The Vanderbilt Commodores held possession of the ball for a mere 24 minutes in the Academy Sports and Outdoors Texas Bowl —roughly 11 minutes less than the opposing Baylor Bears.
Despite this significant discrepancy, the Commodores lost by just a touchdown. Their 38 points can largely be attributed to running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn’s career night on the ground, during which he continuously picked up chunk yardage, thus speeding up the possessions.
The game began with a 65-yard screen pass for a Vanderbilt touchdown, sending a glimpse of hope throughout Commodore faithful at NRG Stadium. However, it was Khari Blasingame on the receiving end, not Vaughn.
Just as he’s done all year, Vaughn waited for his chance to shine.
In Vaughn’s first year as a Commodore, he turned heads and garnered widespread attention for his explosive play. After transferring from the University of Illinois, Vaughn averaged seven yards per carry, racked up seven rushes for 40 or more yards, and tallied 1,001 total rushing yards (in the regular season).
These numbers even slotted him onto some draft boards; however, as crazy as it may seem, he wasn’t even the starting running back for much of the season.
Starter “Or” Not?
In the beginning of the season, Vanderbilt’s depth chart reflected its three-back approach, as it listed: “Ke’Shawn Vaughn or Khari Blasingame or Jamauri Wakefield.”
There were only seven games this season in which Vaughn led the team in carries. In all but one of these games, his longest rush was at least 43 yards. He first received the majority of the team’s carries in the second game against Nevada, in which his high was 46 yards.
Then he broke off for a 78-yard run against Tennessee State, followed by a 43-yard pickup against both Georgia and Florida. Against Arkansas and Missouri, he was the primary ballcarrier once again, and bursted out for a 63-yarder and 65-yarder, respectively.
Yet somehow, it wasn’t until the week after Missouri, when Vanderbilt faced Ole Miss, that the Commodores dropped the “or” on the depth chart and officially acknowledged Vaughn as the lead starter.
Despite Vaughn’s unprecedented success in games in which he received the largest workload, it took a whopping ten games for Vaughn to be officially listed as the sole starting running back.
Given his extreme explosiveness and efficiency as the lead-back, one can only wonder: Why did the Commodores wait so long to make Ke’Shawn Vaughn the go-to guy?
Furthermore, what would the season have looked like if Vaughn was given the workload he so clearly deserved?
Take, for example, Vanderbilt’s road game against Notre Dame. The Commodores lost by just five points; the defense held Notre Dame to just 22 points, but the offense struggled to reach just 17.
Blasingame received more carries than any other back; he ran for 49 yards on 13 carries, averaging just about 3.7 yards per rush. Vaughn had just 10 carries, but his 54 yards was good for an average of 5.4 yards per attempt.
If Vaughn was given more touches, would this game have turned out differently? Once again, if Vaughn had a chunk play of at least 43 yards in 85.7% of the games in which he was the lead back, could he have done it against Notre Dame too?
Of course, there is no guarantee that Vaughn would’ve maintained his average of 5.4 yards per attempt with more touches. However, with the 12-0 Fighting Irish preparing to face Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinal, it seems fair to at least ponder: what if?
The Runs Are Bigger in Texas
On Thursday night, when Vaughn watched Blasingame’s long reception from the sidelines, he likely knew he’d have to wait for his time to prove himself. Again, this was nothing new for Vaughn. If the season-long discrepancy between his usage and his efficiency tells us anything, it’s that Vaughn has the utmost trust in Coach Derek Mason and his system.
The opening touchdown just about wrapped it up big gains for Blasingame. He may have managed to score two more times in the contest, but they were both goal-line carries. In fact, one of them came in true touchdown-vulture-fashion; after reviewing one of Vaughn’s spectacular touchdown carries, the officials marked him out of bounds just beyond the goal line, setting up an easy touchdown for Blasingame (more to come on this later).
Eventually, Vaughn had solidified himself as the three-down back against Baylor.
After Baylor took a 10-7 lead in the first quarter, Vaughn began to take over. On 1st and 10 on their own 32 yard line, quarterback Kyle Shurmur took a shotgun snap and handed it to Vaughn. Unfortunately, if you blinked, you missed the entirety of the run.
All 68 yards of it.
Vaughn’s acceleration off the tackle gave him just enough space to beat the safety and find pay dirt. Fans were amazed by his lightning-fast speed; don’t be surprised if you see the speed of this run analyzed on an ESPN Sports Science segment in the near future.
Just like that, Vaughn had rushed for 71 yards on just three carries. Somehow, someway, Vaughn was far from finished.
The very next possession, Vanderbilt was in need of a score. Baylor had taken a 17-14 lead–their first of the game, but it was short-lived. Shurmur dropped back and completed two quick passes for 12 yards, before his job was made easier, once again, by the same explosive running back.
Again, Shurmur took the shotgun snap. Vanderbilt faked a jet sweep and handed the ball to Vaughn up the gut. Mind you, when the defense has four men up front and multiple linebackers close by, it’s hard to expect more than a couple yards at best.
Unless your running back is Ke’Shawn Vaughn.
Fans started getting accustomed to Vaughn’s miraculous play, as he took the ball up middle and evaded three tacklers in four yards. As soon as he had eclipsed five yards past the line of scrimmage, it was clear that he was gone. This time, it was a 69-yard touchdown. Now, Vaughn’s stat line featured four carries for 140 yards and two touchdowns.
He just had to go on and outdo himself.
In the beginning of the fourth quarter, with Vanderbilt down by four, Vaughn took another off-tackle carry from his own 33-yard line. This time, it wasn’t just pure explosiveness, acceleration, and speed that propelled the run, but rather, grit, determination, and strength.
In pure Marshawn Lynch-esque fashion, Vaughn broke through the line of scrimmage only to stiff-arm a defender straight into the ground, juke through the open arms of two more tacklers, then accelerate past the final linebacker in his trail. As he continued down the open field, a safety eventually wrapped his arms around Vaughn around the ten yard line.
Much like the first attempted tackler, this defender was given a rough introduction to Vaughn’s outstretched arm. Vaughn carried this stiffbarm at full speed for what seemed to be all ten remaining yards, as the referees ruled it a touchdown. This was all after a huge face mask by a Baylor defender that went uncalled.
After review, officials marked Vaughn out of bounds just short of the goal line, setting up Blasingame for an easy touchdown run.That run was good for a whopping 66 yards (and almost a third touchdown).
Vaughn finished the game with an unprecedented, astronomical and eye-opening stat line: 13 rushes for 243 yards and two touchdowns. His 18.7 yards per carry in the Texas Bowl was the most by any player in the past 15 seasons, and his 243 rushing yards was the most by an SEC player in any game this season.
The Commodores may have come up just short, but Vaughn displayed his multi-faceted game on the biggest stage: he showed explosiveness through speed and acceleration, along with power and strength.
His performance went far from unnoticed.
Before he faced the media, Vaughn was even approached by Baylor head coach Matt Rhule, who shook his hand and commended his record-breaking performance.
“Him coming up to me, that means a lot,” Vaughn said. “I’ve never had a head coach from another team come and talk to me about my performance, so it just means a lot that I got his attention too.”
This statement from Vaughn came after a mirage of questions from the media, all focused on one thing: the next chapter.
Will he stay or will he go?
Will Vaughn go one-and-done at Vanderbilt?
Win or lose, Vaughn knew he’d be faced with a tough decision and one that would be on everyone’s minds as soon as the final whistle blew.
After playing two seasons with the University of Illinois, sitting out a year and completing one season at Vanderbilt, he has officially racked up the three seasons necessary to declare for the draft.
Vaughn’s had a noteworthy season; one that probably would have gotten him drafted even before his legendary Texas Bowl performance. In fact, prior to the game, ESPN ranked Vaughn as one of the best draft prospects in the Texas Bowl.
“[Vaughn is] quick through the hole, runs though arm tackles, and he has above-average open-field instincts,” the ESPN report said. “He flashes the potential to develop into a productive receiver. He projects as a mid-round pick.”
His performance on Thursday, however, may have bumped him up a round or two.
As of now, Vaughn asserted to the media that he still is unsure as to whether or not he will declare for the draft.
“I don’t know how I’m going to [make the decision]. I don’t know how soon it’ll get done, but we’ll see,” said Vaughn. “Once I do come up with a decision, I’ll let everybody know.”
Above all, Vaughn’s uncertainty is not a result of his performance in NRG Stadium. In fact, Vaughn went as far as to say that the bowl game “played no part” in his decision.
While the game would not impact Vaughn’s mindset on the NFL, it certainly changed the NFL’s mindset on Vaughn. Before, he was just a “mid-round pick” that many have heard about, but few truly understood. Now, reputable blogs and sources such as The Draft Network saw Ke’Shawn Vaughn’s Bowl performance as an indication that he’s “NFL-ready”.
The Draft Network states, “[Vaughn] likely won’t be a full-time back in the NFL, but in a league that loves to switch it up and getting mismatch opportunities wherever they can, he will certainly have value.”
Vaughn has, for the most part, been used as a “switch it up” back at Vanderbilt thus far. Even in the games where he’s received the most carries, other running backs have been involved in the game. He could very well be used to change the pace on an NFL roster.
Few, if any, doubt Vaughn’s talent. Mason even held true to his notion from day-one, as he believes Vaughn is a special back. and one that could–and should–play on Sundays.
“Ke’Shawn will get the information from the NFL and respond to that information accordingly. The reality is that he’s always been a good back, and I don’t think that’s changed,” said Mason in the postgame press conference. “He’s an elite back.”
However, there was one vital caveat in what Mason said, as he proceeded to discuss Vaughn’s future. One that should be duly noted by Vaughn himself.
“I think he’s capable when the time is right of maybe being a first round back, but there’s a lot of distance between now and then, in my opinion,” Mason said. “But I’ve always said he’s special.”
Mason is right: Vaughn will not be a first-round draft pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. Mason cannot assure that Vaughn will ever reach the first round, but given his performance in the final game, he sure could get there.
Once again, imagine if Vaughn was used as the primary back against teams such as Notre Dame. Imagine if he had gotten the reps he so clearly deserved against top-tier, nationally-heralded opponents. Maybe then, the right decision would be clear. Maybe then, he should declare for the draft.
That was not the case this season. Vaughn’s unwillingness to confirm his return could hint at the fact that he may declare for the draft, but he should wait until “the time is right.” On the other hand, with as high a ceiling as Vaughn has, the logical choice is to stay for one more year. After all, he wasn’t really on many radars until the bowl game. If he were to put on that type of show for an entire season, he would leap to a more fitting position in the NFL Draft.
Vaughn’s epic performance will not be forgotten, but he has the chance to continue his legacy, and impact his draft stock in the process.
If Vaughn returns next season, he will be, from day one, without a doubt, the starting halfback. If Vaughn returns next season, he’ll be in the national spotlight all season, rather than after just one game.
If Vaughn returns next season, watch out.