By Zac Ellis
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Last week, Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason spent a moment breaking down his team’s running back corps in 2018. That group loses Ralph Webb, the Commodores’ all-time leading rusher, which means it’s searching for a starter for the first time in Mason’s tenure.
But at least one returning face isn’t familiar to Vanderbilt fans – and neither is his name.
“You've got The Mamba,” Mason said. “Everybody’s waiting to see exactly what he does.”
Wait… The Mamba?
“That’s my nickname from high school,” running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn said. “Oregon’s De’Anthony Thomas was my favorite football player, and Kobe Bryant was my favorite basketball player. They were both the ‘Black Mamba,’ so that’s where it came from.”
Nifty nickname in tow, Vaughn has made an impression on the Commodores in a short stint on campus. He arrived at Vanderbilt last summer as a transfer from Illinois, where he started eight games and amassed 1,024 total rush yards and nine touchdowns in two seasons with the Illini. Vaughn then sat out the 2017 season in line with NCAA transfer rules.
Now Vanderbilt enters spring looking for a replacement for Webb as the program’s bell-cow back. Finally eligible, “The Mamba” said he’s ready for a chance to make his mark on the SEC.
“It’s just a good feeling being back on the field, taking the reps with the ones, getting back in the flow of the game like I used to,” Vaughn said. “I felt like I had a little more freedom on the scout team, so I used last season to really perfect the small details.”
Vaughn showed flashes of greatness early in his stint at Illinois. He earned the team’s Offensive Newcomer of the Year award after rushing for a team-high 723 yards and six touchdowns as a freshman in 2015. But a depth chart shakeup pushed Vaughn to look elsewhere for a culmination to his college career.
SPRING PREVIEW: Breaking down the Commodores in 2018
“I knew I wanted to come back home,” Vaughn said. “I knew coming to Vandy would give me access to the SEC and a degree that means so much more.”
Mason and Vanderbilt’s coaching staff weren’t unfamiliar with Vaughn. The 5-10, 215-pound tailback had starred at Nashville’s Pearl-Cohn High, rushing for 2,646 yards and 45 touchdowns as a senior in 2014. Vaughn earned Tennessee Gatorade Player of the Year honors that year and ultimately signed with Illinois as the state’s premier running back prospect.
Following his arrival on West End, “The Mamba” turned heads as a scout-team running back for the Commodores in 2017. His speed and penchant for finding creases have been on display this spring, as well.
“Ke’Shawn’s been hungry since the day he got here,” senior quarterback Kyle Shurmur said. “He’s worked really hard, and we saw how talented he was this past year. He’s been consistent in his work and we’ve been excited with Ke’Shawn since the day he got here.”
Mason said Vaughn could add a major spark to Vanderbilt’s offense, which returns Shurmur and its entire offensive line from 2017.
“Let me tell you, he will impress,” Mason said. “He’s really as good as advertised. That’s not overselling -- that’s what he is. He’s already put it on tape. Now what he’s got to do is continue to focus and work under the tutelage of Andy Ludwig, who’s been phenomenal in his transition [to running backs coach].”
Vaughn knows he must earn his spot atop the Dores’ depth chart. Vanderbilt brings back several backs with game experience, including senior Khari Blasingame, redshirt sophomore Jamauri Wakefield and redshirt junior Josh Crawford. That committee is tasked with replacing Webb’s 4,173 career rushing yards.
But “The Mamba” is ready for the challenge.
“It’s just about taking things day-by-day and not rushing anything,” Vaughn said. “It’s trying to keep calm and just play football in our system.”
Zac Ellis is the Writer and Digital Media Editor for Vanderbilt Athletics.