Webb aiming for SEC greatness

Aug. 14, 2017

This story appeared in the July/August 2017 edition of Commodore Nation.

By Zac Ellis

The weight room at Vanderbilt's McGugin Center thumps with music as Ralph Webb, sweaty in a dark, drenched T-shirt, wipes his brow following a recent morning workout. The Commodores' fifth-year running back takes a breath, grabs a pre-packed breakfast and leaves a symphony of clanging equipment in his wake. As Webb drifts into an adjacent hallway, a graphic above its entrance reads, "THE ROAD TO ATLANTA PASSES THROUGH THESE DOORS".

Webb's work ethic is revered within the walls of Vanderbilt's football complex. But as Webb tells it, he is not unfamiliar with role of the underdog.

"I've been underrated all my life," Webb says. "It means a lot to me to carry a chip on my shoulder. I just keep my head down and keep working."

Webb's penchant for grinding could lift Vanderbilt to new heights in 2017. It could also cement the running back among the greatest players in SEC history. Entering the fall, Webb has 3,342 career rushing yards, No. 1 all-time at Vanderbilt and ranks 20th all-time in the SEC. If his surge continues this fall, Webb will solidify his spot alongside one-name SEC legends steeped in football lore: Herschel, Bo and the like.

That notion, however, seems not to faze the determined Webb.

"I just take it as it comes," Webb says, "but my mindset is always to be great, to be legendary. A chance to be up there with some of the greats in the SEC, that means people can stop sleeping on me."

Through three seasons as a starter, Webb has done enough to shake up the Commodores' record books. The durable runner has already set Vanderbilt freshman, sophomore and junior rushing records. His 1,283 yards in 2016 set the program's new single-season record, besting the previous mark set by former All-SEC back Zac Stacy. And Webb is also a workhorse; he has more career carries (739) than any Vanderbilt player and is riding a 37-game streak of consecutive starts.

Now Webb has a chance to truly leave his mark on the SEC. With a repeat of his 2016 rushing output, the senior would cap his Vanderbilt career with 4,625 rushing yards, second-most in SEC history behind Georgia legend and Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker (5,259 yards). Doing so would push Webb ahead of the likes of Arkansas' Darren McFadden (currently No. 2 at 4,590 yards) and Auburn's Bo Jackson (No. 4 at 4,303), the latter another Heisman winner.

Vanderbilt running backs coach Jeff Genyk said the potential for SEC greatness adds a level of intrigue to Webb's swan song in Nashville.

"Obviously, we're in this to win games and push Vanderbilt to the SEC Championship Game," Genyk said. "But you look at the names near the top of that SEC list, and it's very exciting. The fact that we're even talking about this for Ralph is exciting."

Coincidentally, Webb's tenure at Vanderbilt almost never came to be. A standout back out of Gainesville, Fla., the rusher was once moments away from committing to Minnesota. The Sunday before National Signing Day in 2013, Webb grabbed his phone to call then-Minnesota coach Jerry Kill. That's when former Vanderbilt coach James Franklin FaceTime'd him, a scholarship offer in tow.

More than four years later, Webb credits a bit of divine intervention for his now-prolific Vanderbilt career.

"It was all God. He saved me," Webb says. "That was my calling. After I'd come and visited Vanderbilt's campus, I knew I had my shot."

The 2016 season was Webb's best yet on campus. He set a single-game career-high with his 211-yard outburst in a 47-24 win over Middle Tennessee on Sept. 9. Webb surpassed 100 yards rushing in seven games and tallied 13 rushing touchdowns, the most by a Commodore since 2013.

"Ralph Webb is the epitome of what we preach at Vanderbilt, which is being relentless, tough and intelligent," Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason said. "He is as hard-working as any player I've come across and is an invaluable leader for this program. By returning to West End in 2017, Ralph has a chance to truly build on his legacy not just at Vanderbilt, but in the SEC."

Amid a record-breaking career, Webb has made the most of his time as a student-athlete. In 2016, Webb spent two weeks studying abroad in Australia, where he snorkeled in the Great Barrier Reef and toured the Daintree Rain Forest. His experience helped convince teammate Oren Burks, a senior linebacker, to embark on the same trip this summer. Back in Nashville, Webb - a corporate strategies minor alongside a major in sociology - has spent the past two summers interning at a local Holiday Inn.

Webb says he hopes to own his own hotel one day. Until then, a future in football seems likely for the sturdy 200-pound bruiser. Webb's efforts as a junior in 2016 earned him second team All-SEC honors, and he toyed with an early departure from Vanderbilt to test the NFL waters. But Webb announced his decision to return following Vanderbilt's loss to N.C. State in the Camping World Independence Bowl last December. At the time, Webb said he knew he had more to give.

That's what Vanderbilt's workhorse has focused on during spring practice and summer workouts.

"Everything from pass protection to hands out of the backfield to finishing plays to getting better in open space and knowing the defense," Webb said. "It's more than running the ball. It's more than X's and O's. You have to know how to adjust in situations. I think all-around I've gotten better."

Added Genyk: "Ralph embraces a leadership role. He can run a Division I football running back room, and he continues to grow from a knowledge standpoint."

Webb won't sneak up on the SEC when Vanderbilt kicks off the 2017 season. But the Commodores could have the pieces in place to surprise the rest of the league. Webb is one of nine returning starters on offense, including quarterback Kyle Shurmur and senior receivers C.J Duncan, Caleb Scott and Trent Sherfield. The Dores lose All-American linebacker Zach Cunningham on defense, but they boast blossoming stars like Burks and defensive lineman Nifae Lealao.

Indeed, team success is the focus for Webb, who prefers to stiff-arm the spotlight like a would-be tackler. But the potential for SEC greatness looms large over Webb's final season at Vanderbilt. With a little luck - and plenty of hard work - the Commodores' star might just find himself among legendary company.

"If you speak of the SEC, you'll have to speak of Ralph Webb," Webb said. "If you speak of Vanderbilt, you'll have to speak of Ralph Webb. Just as a leader and a captain on this team, I have to make sure I set the standard in all phases."

Zac Ellis is the Writer and Digital Media Editor for Vanderbilt Athletics. Check out his story archive and follow him on Twitter here.


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