2020-04-10T16:31:10+00:00)

Ke’Shawn Vaughn is the NFL Draft’s grimy underdog. That’s exactly where he wants to be

The Vanderbilt running back’s college legacy was built on big performances in tough situations.

Ke’Shawn Vaughn is the NFL Draft’s grimy underdog. That’s exactly where he wants to be
Ke’Shawn Vaughn starred at Illinois and Vanderbilt before entering the 2020 NFL Draft.

Ke’Shawn Vaughn had no trouble finding the easy route on the field in college. He capped off his Vanderbilt career with 2,272 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns in two seasons — both top-five marks all time for the Commodores.

Off the field, however, he typically chose the hard way.

The former four-star recruit opted to build his legacy at a pair of spotlight-starved Power 5 programs rather than join a running back assembly line at schools like Notre Dame, Ohio State, Tennessee, or Wisconsin. He began his college career with an Illinois team that existed on the fringes of bowl eligibility before heading home to Nashville with a Commodore squad in similar stasis.

“My mindset with the college route was that it’s easy to go to the Bamas, O-States, LSUs, and all that, and maybe you’d just be another player in that program,” he told reporters at the NFL Scouting Combine. “I want to go to a program I can help turn around, set myself apart. Because both programs [Illinois and Vanderbilt] ... I’m thinking the uprise is on the way. So that’s kind of why I chose Illinois coming out and then as far as Vandy, the same way.”

Leaning into the struggle has been Vaughn’s path through college. He’s spent the bulk of his career as the first player opponents break down when they do their film prep. While that left him without a winning record for even a single season in the NCAA, it’s also shaped him to be a dynamite NFL running back.

Vaughn was a blue-chip talent for two different needy programs

Vaughn was one of Illinois’ top recruits in 2015. He backed up the hype by emerging as the team’s leading rusher as a true freshman.

The arrival of new head coach Lovie Smith one season later led to a reduced role in the Illini offense. His 157 carries dropped to 60, and Vaughn announced his intention to transfer soon after, returning to his hometown. That cast him as Vanderbilt’s replacement for Ralph Webb — the most accomplished running back in school history. Instead, he outperformed his predecessor to create his own legacy.

Vaughn left Vanderbilt with the 17th-most rushes of any player in school history and the fifth-most yards. His 21 touchdowns on the ground are tied for fourth-most. He holds the school record for highest yards-per-carry average from a full-time tailback at 6.4. The next closest comparison, Eric Lewis, clocked in at 5.5. Vaughn was good for nearly a full extra yard per touch than the most efficient running back in school history before him.

No one game encapsulated his impact more than the 2018 Texas Bowl:

Vaughn exploded for 243 rushing yards — including three runs of at least 66 yards. It was just that kind of day for him:

“[Before the game] Air Hockey, I won Air Hockey. 2K, I won 2K. Madden, I won Madden. There was another game I won. I was like, ‘No, I’m done.’ I just kept winning so I feel like that just kind of sparked that whole drive that I had that game,” said Vaughn. “And knowing I had something to prove. So that’s kind of … I ended up leaving the last game of the season, which was the (Tennessee) game, I left that game early. So coming into that Texas Bowl game, I knew I had something to prove.

“And I kind of did.”

That game also featured the run Vaughn singled out as the one that best encapsulates him as a player: his final touchdown of the night looked like would be snuffed out 55 yards earlier:

That set a high expectation for 2019. It was one the ‘Dores couldn’t fulfill.

After rushing for 1,244 yards at a 7.9 yards-per-carry clip and 12 touchdowns in his first season, Vaughn’s numbers fell to 1,028 yards, 5.2 yards per carry, and nine touchdowns in 2019. While his drop in production as a senior may raise concerns, there’s a good explanation for it.

Vaughn played alongside Kyle Shurmur in 2018, a steady quarterback who threw for 3,100 yards and 24 touchdowns as a senior. His departure gave way to an unstable situation where three different starters managed to combine for 2,012 yards and 10 TDs. Shurmur averaged 7.7 yards per pass in Vaughn’s first year as a Commodore. Vandy’s starters saw that number dip to 5.4 yards.

The silver lining was Vaughn’s receiving output more than doubled. That was partially as a result of the common-sense playcalling to get the ball in his hands as much as possible, but also because Vandy’s quarterbacks checked down all the time. Without the threat of a proficient passing game — despite having potential 2020 draftees Jared Pinkney and Kalija Lipscomb in the lineup — opponents were able to focus on stopping the Commodore run game.

Even with a multitude of stacked boxes and extra linebackers in his way, Vaughn still produced the ninth-most rushing yards in a single season in school history. SEC opponents knew all they had to do was stop him to muzzle the Commodores, and they still struggled to do it.

What about Vaughn’s style will translate to NFL success?

Vaughn sees the field well, then takes advantage of slivers of daylight with an explosive burst through the trenches. He’s got good, but not elite speed in the open field. That means defensive backs can track him.

Instead of allowing them to run him down, he often prefers to run through them. Here he is showing off all those traits on the first play of the game against 2019 national champion LSU.

Vaughn’s got a word to describe that style. Grimy.

“I consider myself a grimy player,” he explained. “What I could have been as a child, playing on the streets and everything, I translated that into the football field. I’m confident. I’ve got that swagger in myself. I know I can’t be brought down. If you’re a defender, you’re just in my way. That’s what ‘grimy’ means.”

He brings more value than just the kind of player who could blast tiring defenses on the ground. Vaughn’s contribution to the passing game as a junior with the Commodores was as a little-used, high-impact screen pass option (13 catches, 170 yards). With limited quarterbacks behind center, his route tree grew — even if his yards-per-catch number slid as a senior (28 catches, 270). That’s momentum he can take with him to the next level as he works to prove he’s an every-down NFL back.

“I’d say I’m kind of Alvin Kamara-type running back that could be used anywhere,” Vaughn told reporters. “Catching is something I’ve been focusing on for a long time now. Before college, I was never really catching the ball out of the backfield unless it was a Y route. You get to college and you got to adjust. You’re on more routes because you get inserted into the pass concept. I gained more confidence in myself as a natural catcher. That’s something I take much pride in. That’s kind of something I showed last season.”

The next test on Vaughn’s plate is to bring his grimy running to Sundays. His solid but unspectacular showing at the combine failed to raise his stock in analysts’ eyes. Mock drafts and scouting reports peg him as a Day 2 or early Day 3 pick. Without the opportunity to show coaches his explosiveness and willingness in person through on-site workouts, he could be stuck in the middle of this year’s draft.

That would make him a bargain for team in need of a difference maker in the backfield. It would also put Vaughn in a familiar spot: one where he’s got something to prove if he’s going to establish himself as a unique talent. That’s right where he wants to be.

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