Hey, SEC defenses: Don't let Ke'Shawn "Sneak" Vaughn sneak up on you
HOOVER, Ala. — Kalija Lipscomb didn’t pause.
The Vanderbilt receiver was asked a question about Ke’Shawn Vaughn and where he ranks among running backs nationally.
“Number one. Number one, point blank. Period. Best running back in college football,” Lipscomb said.
Lipscomb’s take is admittedly biased. He had a front-row seat to watch Vaughn explode for 1,244 rushing yards (7.9 yards per carry) and 12 touchdowns in his first full season with the Commodores. Only 5 returning Power 5 backs had more rushing yards than Vaughn, and none played in the SEC.
But when the preseason All-SEC ballot came out a day after Lipscomb said that about his teammate, it was clear that not everyone shared that belief. Vaughn was only a second-team selection behind the likes of Georgia’s D’Andre Swift and Alabama’s Najee Harris.
So still no respect for Vaughn? That’s fine. After all, they call him “Sneak Vaughn” for a reason.
There’s no reason that Vaughn should sneak up on anyone in the SEC this year. His breakout 2018 season concluded with an average of 150 rushing yards in his last 5 games, including that 243-yard performance against Baylor in the Texas Bowl (on just 13 carries). He hit more home runs than anyone in the SEC with 10 rushes of 40 yards or more and 6 of 60 yards or more.
The guy who had the second-most prolific season ever for a Vandy running back has bigger things on his mind.
“I feel like I can break records,” Vaughn said. “That’s something I’m chasing. I want to get better, get my name out there more and perfect the things people don’t think I’m good at like pass blocking and catching. Proving doubters wrong.”
Vaughn doesn’t have doubters within his locker room. That much is obvious. Listen to Derek Mason talk about Vaughn and you’d think it was his first-born son.
Considering how their relationship formed, that makes a lot of sense.
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Coming out of Pearl-Cohn High School in Nashville, 2 miles from Vanderbilt, Vaughn chose not to stay local after a senior season in which he racked up 2,646 yards and 45 touchdowns. The 2014 Tennessee Gatorade Player of the Year wanted to leave home to mature, and ultimately turned down Mason after his rough first year with the program and instead began his college career at Illinois.
Everything about the start of Vaughn’s career screamed “one that got away” for Mason. As a true freshman in 2015, he had 723 rushing yards and 6 touchdowns for the Illini. When Lovie Smith replaced Bill Cubit following the 2015 season, it seemed like Vaughn’s stock was only rising. Smith made the atypical decision to bring Vaughn to Big Ten Media Days, making him the only second-year player representative in Chicago.
Three games into Vaughn’s sophomore season, he had 40 carries for 187 yards and a pair of touchdowns as the starting back. Illinois was 1-2 and coming off an embarrassing home loss to Western Michigan when Smith made a decision that caught Vaughn completely off guard.
He was demoted. Not to second string. Third team.
The rest of the 2016 season, Vaughn only got 20 carries. He went from possible All-Big Ten tailback to scout team tailback without so much as an explanation from Smith.
“To this day, I can’t answer that,” Vaughn said. “I still don’t know. I haven’t found out yet. Just like talking to my mom, she helped me get through that. Not knowing why was my biggest issue.”
Nobody was surprised at season’s end when the former 4-star recruit announced his intentions to transfer. But Vaughn, who probably could have had a slew of suitors, didn’t want to essentially become a recruit again and soak in being pursued by Power 5 schools.
“I’m not much of a party person, so the college experience don’t really mean much to me,” Vaughn said. “It’s more like, Vanderbilt’s in the SEC, great degree. And that’s the reason I came back home.”
In his mind, Vandy was the only choice. He said he didn’t even consider other schools. He maintained a relationship with Mason — he told Vaughn a scholarship was always available — that resurfaced even more when he found himself looking for a new place to play.
“When he (went to Illinois), I know he had a mindset of ‘Maybe I need to go; but, Coach, I appreciate who you are.’ And in coming back, OK, when he decided to come back, you know, there was no animosity. OK. I thought he was the same guy,” Mason said. “I knew he was a talented running back, and for him to know that he was going to have to sit a year, that’s not easy.”
Vaughn didn’t apply for an immediate eligibility waiver even though he dealt with not one, but two head coaching changes at Illinois. Instead, he embraced being on scout team. It was a different experience than his scout team reps at Illinois. Mason said that Vaughn might have been the best scout team back he’s ever coached. He used that experience to learn the system and ultimately become the 2018 SEC Newcomer of the Year.
Ask Mason about Vaughn now and he’ll speak of how that approach won over the locker room. Guys want to block for him, which is a deadly combination with his skill set.
“The biggest thing that you see about Ke’Shawn is that when he touches the ball, he’s hard to tackle. I mean, the young man’s dynamic,” Mason said. “If you ask me how fast he runs, I don’t know. 4.36? 4.39? At 220 pounds, I mean, he’s fast, I mean, faster than any running back that I’ve seen since I’ve been there. I think we’ve added — Ralph Webb is pretty fast, but this young man can go.
“When you look at his ability to go zero to 60, I’ve seen him reverse field. I’ve seen him cut back across the grain and outrun angles. How often do you see that?”
Vaughn’s versatility is definitely rare. He certainly caught some NFL eyes with the way he finished 2018.
So why did he come back?
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Nicknames have always been a staple of Vaughn’s career. When he was in high school, his favorite player was Oregon’s De’Anthony Thomas, who got the nickname “Black Mamba” from Snoop Dogg (Kobe Bryant was the original Black Mamba). Vaughn gave himself the nickname “Red Mamba” because red was one of his high school colors. Now, he’s back to his childhood nickname of “Sneak” Vaughn (Lipscomb said Vaughn will always be Red Mamba to some).
There’s another nickname that Vaughn picked up this offseason. Rather, he was at the center of it.
“The Big Three” represents Vaughn, Lipscomb and Jared Pinkney. All of them represented Vandy at SEC Media Days, and all of them were preseason second-team All-SEC selections who finished among the top 3 in yardage among their respective position groups last year (no trio in America accomplished that feat). As for who came up with the nickname, that remains a mystery.
“I heard it and I didn’t turn it down because it’s pretty cool, of course,” Lipscomb said. “There’s Big Threes in the NBA so kinda piggybacking off that. But I say it’s a Big Three, whether it’s the Heat Big Three or the Warriors’ Big Three, Ke’Shawn is the main guy. He’s LeBron, he’s Steph, or he’s K.D.”
In case you were wondering, Pinkney is Klay Thompson and Lipscomb is Steph Curry. But unlike that Big 3, which saw Kevin Durant leave at season’s end, Vandy’s Big 3 is still intact. That’s because Vaughn made the somewhat surprising decision at season’s end to return for his senior season, which needless to say, drew a positive reaction from his teammates.
“I’m like, ‘Oooh, yeah. That’s crazy. Yeah, we up. It’s gonna be big, man,’” Lipscomb said. “Excitement was the best word to describe it.”
Vaughn hopes his return will result in 2 things. For starters, Mason told him to make sure he gets his money on the front end. That is, leave no doubt that he should be one of the top running backs in the NFL Draft by proving that he’s a complete player as a pass-blocker and catching balls out of the backfield.
From a team standpoint, Vaughn wants to continue to build up his hometown school. He still thinks the about the Florida game last year. Vandy jumped out to a 14-3 lead and Vaughn had 131 total yards just 20 minutes into the game. But when Vaughn left the game with an injury in the second quarter, the Gators stormed back in the second half.
Vaughn believes Vandy would have won had he stayed healthy (he did a “we let them slide” post on Instagram that day). The Commodores also would have had a better chance to avoid a 7-point loss against No. 14 Kentucky the following week had Vaughn been able to suit up.
This year, a healthy Vaughn has a focus that’s clear as ever.
Yeah, he wants to break records. Yeah, he wants to take his hometown program to places it’s never been. Yeah, he wants to get his NFL money on the front end.
And yeah, he’s OK sneaking right past everyone to make that happen.