Maturity is one of those things that you can know of and understand, but it's hard to feel. You can tell yourself you're maturing, or even be reflective and say you have matured, but those are often just words; it's hard to feel them as they happen. You kind of just are who you are. One day you're making decisions with a certain thought process, and the next you might not be. It's not something you feel, but rather, something that just happens for those it happens to.
A journey of maturity is a good way to describe the football career of Vanderbilt redshirt senior running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn.
As a high schooler, Vaughn rushed for back-to-back 2,000-yard seasons before being named "Mr. Football" in the state of Tennessee his senior year. By the time his high school career was over, Vaughn became a four-star prospect with offers from Illinois, West Virginia, Louisville, Purdue, Notre Dame, Tennessee and Vanderbilt.
But all of that almost never happened.
As a freshman at Pearl-Cohn High School, Vaughn was already splitting time as a varsity starter with a senior running back on the team. Pearl-Cohn coach Tony Brunetti said of Vaughn, even as a freshman, that Vaughn was so good he could have led their team to a state title. But he didn't, and the reason for that was because Vaughn ended up breaking his ankle during state quarterfinals.
When that happened, Vaughn was ready to quit.
“Whew, that boy wanted to quit so many times,” Vaughn's mother Tameka Dennis told the Tennessean. “Even back to his freshman year (at Pearl-Cohn), he would get so discouraged and said, ‘I’m not going back. I’m done.’ But we talked and he went back, and look at what he’s accomplished now.”
Looking back at it now, it's hard to believe that Vaughn would even let that thought cross his mind. I mean, he was already the best player on the team as a freshman. Quitting? Throwing all that away? That, one could say, was a time when young Vaughn had a lack of maturity to him -- understanable if we all think back to our thought process as early teens. But he didn't know it yet. Thankfully his mother did, and she told him to stay the course -- realize what football could be for him.
After earning the aforementioned high school honors, Vaughn accepted a scholarship offer to the University of Illinois. As a freshman, he led the team in rushing with 723 yards on 157 carries. But that was the best it would get for Vaughn at Illinois.
Vaughn went through two coaching changes in his first year with the program. Eventually, Lovie Smith would take over at head coach for Vaughn's sophomore year. Despite leading the team as just a freshman the year before, Smith cut Vaughn's touches and production in half. As you can imagine, that didn't sit well with him.
It was in this moment that Vaughn showed new maturity. Knowing the attitude he had in high school, one might have predicted Vaughn would just get down on football all together. But he didn't do that. He decided that football at Illinois was not the right place for him, but he wasn't ready to give it all up. That was progress from the decisions he came to on his own as a highly-touted high schooler.
Vaughn transferred back home to Nashville and Vanderbilt University. After sitting out the entire 2017 season due to transfer rules, Vaughn was once again overlooked to start his redshirt junior year. In his first game, he received just nine carries. In his second, he received 11, but took them for 93 yards and two touchdowns. He figured that was his big break. But over the next few games he would receive just 19 carries total. Frustration mounted for Vaughn again.
But it was here that Vaughn showed the latest progress in his journey of maturity. In a situation where he was doubted, Vaughn told his mother that he was going to stay patient, stay the course, and just control what he could could control.
And then he did.
Against Tennessee State, Vaughn was given 17 carries that he took for 146 yards. From there, it was off to the races. Vaughn finished the season with 1,244 yards on 157 carries, the same amount of carries he received his true freshman year at Illinois when he amassed 723 yards. In Vaughn's final game of the 2018 season, he recorded 243 yards on 13 carries with two touchdowns, a performance that he could have ridden off into the Tennessee sunset and into the 2019 NFL Draft.
Instead he decided he had some unfinished business -- perhaps another hint of strong maturity. Despite the lack of looks early in the season, Vaughn nearly topped Vandy's single-season rushing record in 2018, a number he hopes to improve upon in 2019.
But we're not here to talk about Vandy records, we're here to talk about the NFL draft. Going off of what he put on tape last year, here is Vaughn's starting point for what will be his final season.
Play No. 1: One-Cut Wonder
As you get into Vaughn's tape, two traits should pop out at you right away: his vision and his one-cut ability. These make Vaughn an ideal candidate for a zone blocking scheme.
With moving parts all around him, Vaughn can identify where green grass is going to be, even if it might be against the grain. He has a keen eye and patience to boot to let blocks develop and hit running lanes with quickness, power and speed. When he puts his foot in the ground, the 5-foot-10, 220 pound Vaughn can really burst in different directions. He's an absolute natural for a zone blocking team.
Play No. 2: Shake & Bake
When I saw this clip above during my tape study, I actually laughed out loud. Vaughn just toys with that defender in the clip above. The little shimmy and shake shows you that, even for a player of his size who can win with power, he's not afraid to put you on skates and make you look silly.
This lends to Vaughn being viewed as a complete back, which I believe he is. He's not just a contact breaking player; he can even make the contact miss, at times. Of course, he's not going to be a human joystick, but the agility he has, paired with his one-cut ability, makes him plenty effective in open space.
Play No. 3: Shake & Break
As hinted at in the sections above, Vaughn's calling card is his ability to take contact and move forward. He shows Alvin Kamara-like traits, in that regard, with his ability to take contact with great balance, stay up and keep moving forward with good momentum. He's also not a player who is going to give you the satisfaction of taking him down very often. Even when running out of bounds, Vaughn will often stay on his feet. That sort of extracurricular mentality can show up between the lines, too -- it did for Kamara, just go watch his Tennessee tape. For Vaughn it does.
Play No. 4: Third Down Traits
Part of being a complete back is being reliable on third downs. In order to do that you have to positively affect the game in more ways than just with the ball in your hand -- although being a strong back against contact can lend itself to third down situations when in short yardage formations.
First of all you have to be able to block. If you can't protect the quarterback as an extra blocker on likely passing downs, you won't see the field on third down.
As shown above, Vaughn has a willingness to be a blocker. His strength as a runner does not show up as bold as it does when pass blocking, but that makes me think it is more technique related than anything else. He's sort fo reckless with his body in how he approaches blocking assignments. This hurts his ability to really anchor and stay in control while blocking. But I actually think clips like the one above can be seen as positives due to the effort given. You can work on the rest in the NFL.
After pass blocking, pass catching is also a skill that must be utilized on third downs. Vaughn has never recorded more than 16 receptions in a single season, and that was in his freshman year at Illinois. But, in 2018 at Vanderbilt, Vaughn did record 13 catches for 170 yards, a 13.1 yards-per-catch clip.
The play above shows that, though Vaughn doesn't have a ton of experience and reps when catching the ball in-game, he certainly doesn't appear to be any sort of liability when performing it. Vaughn seems plenty natural as a pass catcher out of the backfield, and once he gets that ball in his hands, we already know what he can do to get yards after the catch.
Play No. 5: Patience Equals Production
As a redshirt senior, Vaughn has been around the block. He's seen his fair share of carries, but he's also had to be the guy to sit and wait from the sidelines. That time as an observer seems to have really aided how Vaughn now sees the field.
He is such a patient runner, often waiting for his blockers to move into position to maximize runs rather than seeing open grass and taking off for it the second he's there. Notice how smooth the run above was, and how Vaughn realized that, if he didn't out-run his blocker and just veered to the outside that he had room up the sideline. I could barely see that from a bird's eye view, let alone thinking of it with the ball in my hand at field level. That kind of patience and mid-play recognition shows up constantly throughout his tape. Such a characteristic fortifies the idea that, in a zone blocking scheme, Vaughn can thrive at the NFL level.
Maturity is often something that we just assume everyone we achieve, at some point in their life. I don't believe that's true, nor do I even believe that, for some people, it will happen as early in their life as they hope it to. It wasn't always a path easy to see for Ke'Shawn Vaughn, and I think he would be the first to tell you that he didn't always have the right mindset for things. But going into his final year of college football, it appears now he truly does -- at least for where he is in his life right now. He has matured, and his game has matured with him.
He'll be one of the more experienced backs in the draft class when April rolls around, but if I had to guess, I'd say he'll be one of the best ones out there, too.