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VOL. 43 | NO. 35 | Friday, August 30, 2019

Vaughn shrugs off doubters as he unleashes star within

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You can’t see it, but Ke’Shawn Vaughn confirms its existence, covered up by bulky shoulder pads and well beyond the scope of reality television star Dr. Pimple Popper.

It’s a chip on his shoulder. A big one. Usually hidden with a broad, endearing smile that belies just how much it drives the heralded running back going into his final season at Vanderbilt.

The phrase’s dictionary definition is ‘to have an angry or unpleasant attitude or way of behaving caused by a belief that one has been treated unfairly in the past.” Vaughn isn’t angry or unpleasant — just the opposite — but it aptly describes both his and the team’s approach to the 2019 season.

“That’s fair to say. Right now, it’s bigger than me,” Vaughn says when asked if he plays with a chippy attitude. “Right now, it’s all about this team. And we still get doubters to this day.

“We’ve got me, (wide receiver) Kalija (Lipscomb) and (tight end Jared) Pinkney, the top three in our positions and everything, and we just get viewed as nothing. All that is just feeding into the team.”

Vaughn is the Southeastern Conference’s top returning running back, in terms of both yardage (1,244 in 2018) and touchdowns (12), and is on several prestigious “watch lists” for postseason honors. Yet he was a second-team All-SEC selection on both the coaches and media polls, with Georgia’s D’Andre Swift and Alabama’s Najee Harris earning first-team honors.

The Commodores finished the 2018 season with a 6-7 record, capped by a 45-38 loss to Baylor in the Texas Bowl — their third postseason appearance in five years. But Vandy enters the season ranked last in the USA Today SEC power rankings and last in the Eastern Division of the SEC preseason media poll.

“Vanderbilt is the safest bet to bring up the rear in the SEC despite likely all-conference running back Ke’Shawn Vaugh and coach Derek Mason’s pedigree on defense,” USA Today’s Paul Myerburg writes.

SEC sociology

Vanderbilt running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn, left, autographs a poster for Blake Smith, 8, during the Dore Jam fan event at Vanderbilt University in August.

-- Photo By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

Vaughn, 22, who will graduate from the league’s only private school in December with a degree in sociology, understands SEC fans and their football passions. He knows how fans and media-types love to debate who’s the best team, the best coach, the best player, the best waterboy, etc.

Consider the dispute over who is the talent-laden league’s best running back, Vaughn or Georgia’s Swift or someone else. No. 3 Georgia visits Vanderbilt in the Aug. 30 season-opener. One would think that showcase opener would answer the question, but it will be a season-long debate, depending on several factors including how their teams fare, avoiding injury, how the offensive line performs and how well a new starting quarterback (Riley Neal or Deuce Wallace) plays.

Sports Illustrated just released its list of 2019’s 100 best players at all positions and has Vaughn rated No. 29, eight spots ahead of No. 37 Swift.

“With quarterback Kyle Shurmur gone, the Vanderbilt offense will start and end with Vaughn. … He enters 2019 as one of the most underrated backs in the country,” Sports Illustrated writes.

Jim Johnson of SouthernPigskin.com (part of the USA Today network) says Vaughn “absolutely is a superstar” and then concludes, “That being said, with all due respect to Vaughn, D’Andre Swift is the best returning rusher in the league.”

On his Twitter account @SneakVaughn5, there is this blanket response (emojies not included) to preseason detractors:

Mane how do y'all vote for these pre-season awards? Y'all can't be going off on individual stats. Keep downplaying me doe 

Proving himself

Ke'Shawn Vaughn was the most popular player at Vanderbilt's fan day in August. He had the longest line.

-- Photo By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

While Vaughn expects criticism, he also knows that his positive yardage ultimately speaks louder than negative commentary. He says he’s been dealing with such even before his wildly successful high school career at Pearl-Cohn in which he rushed for 2,646 yards and 45 touchdowns his senior season and was named Gatorade Player of the Year in Tennessee.

“Honestly? My whole life I’ve been like the underdog. From (youth) league, having to start off at this position and then go to running back after a certain amount of time. And then, even like in middle school, I wasn’t necessarily viewed as the best back. I was always in somebody’s shadow,” Vaughn says.

“That was the same thing with high school. I mean, everything … now, they’re just all about the grind. And me, I feed off the haters, the doubters, whatever you want to call them. I feed off that. So that’s something I’ve been feeding off of since a young age, so I compete with the doubters.”

Sixth-year Vanderbilt head coach Mason has never doubted, which is why Vaughn is at the West End university today.

Mason was among the earliest coaches to say he believed in Vaughn’s abilities when he was at Pearl-Cohn, continued to support him when he chose to go to Illinois instead of just two miles up the road, and then again when Vaughn decided to transfer home to Vandy.

And today Mason trusts Vaughn more than ever, saying his leadership traits and power running game will win over doubters.

“Ke’Shawn is Ke’Shawn. I don’t think there’s a day where he doesn’t come to practice. I mean, that’s just who he is. Once he gets between the white lines, he wants to compete,” Mason adds. “He’s one of those guys that can turn it on, turn it off. You know, he’s an alpha male. So I like where he’s at.”

Mason spoke glowingly about Vaughn and their relationship at SEC Media Days.

Ke'Shawn Vaughn in action.

-- Photo Provided

“Ke’Shawn Vaughn is a young man who is prideful about his city. He’s prideful about being a competitor. He wants to be the best at what he does. And that’s been spectacular to see,” Mason continues. “We’ve become close, extremely close, and I’m thankful for that relationship and time spent.”

Ke’ has swagger

In high school, Vaughn’s nickname was Mamba, a salute to Lakers star Kobe Bryant and former Oregon running back De’Anthony Thomas, his favorite athletes. Vaughn still answers to the moniker, but coaches and fellow players just as often call him Ke’ — as in key to the offense.

“Ke’s a great player, man, he’s a great dude to be around. He brings a level of excitement and explosiveness that we need and every team can use. It’s great to be around him,” says Lipscomb, who was named first-team preseason All-SEC by the coaches and second-team by the media.

“You start to expect him to do awesome things day in and day out. And just having he and me and Jared on offense, on my side, they create kind of a vortex of options. It takes a defense’s ability away to single one guy out, so you’ve kind of got to pick your poison.”

Adds tight end Pinkney, also a second-team All-SEC selection: “Really, (Vaughn) can achieve anything he wants. Whatever he puts his mind to, whatever goals he sets for himself. And as far as being where he stands in the SEC, he’s definitely one of the best. I don’t think that’s anything that anybody can dispute. We’re just trying to work toward places we haven’t gone before. And doing things and reaching accolades and accomplishments as a team that we haven’t reached before.”

Other teammates echo those sentiments, especially those from Pearl-Cohn. None are closer to Vaughn than defensive back Cam Watkins, a graduate student who was Vaughn’s high school teammate and followed him first to Illinois and then back to Vanderbilt for one final season together.

“Me and Ke go way back, since fifth grade. He’s always been a really competitive guy. He always wanted to be the best at whatever he does, so he just grinds day-in and day-out,” Watkins point out. “He’s really true to his craft. He wants to be THAT guy. So that’s Ke’Shawn right there.

“I feel like he’s the best back in the country. He has the potential to be a Heisman candidate. He has that kind of ‘it’ factor about him. I feel like he just wants to show how kids from this city can do big things, and come to Vanderbilt and get a great education, and be that guy.”

Vandy linebacker Brayden DeVault-Smith, a redshirt sophomore from Pearl-Cohn, says Vaughn’s maturity is the biggest difference he’s seen.

“So my freshman and sophomore years (at Pearl-Cohn) were his junior and senior years,” DeVault-Smith says. “I think the most he’s grown is, like, vocal leadership. In high school, you knew he was a leader but it was performance and he really didn’t have to say a lot. But now he has stepped into the role and has to say a lot. I think he’s doing a great job of it.”

See the future, be the future

New Vandy running backs coach Tim Horton spent the last 12 years at Arkansas and Auburn, where he coached nine All-Conference running backs and five SEC players of the year. Over the years, Horton produced four SEC rushing leaders: Heisman Trophy finalist Tre Mason (2013), Cameron Artis-Payne (2014), Kamryn Pettway (2016) and Kerryon Johnson (2017).

Horton sees many of those same qualities in Vaughn and says he uses the chippy attitude to his advantage.

“That’s just kind of a little bit of the makeup of who he is as a person. Kind of the underdog mentality. And that may be just from the way he was brought up,” says Horton, who arrived on campus in February. “His work ethic is as good as anybody that I’ve had the opportunity to coach. As far as on-the-field play, I think the first thing that catches my attention is that he’s a terrific tackle-breaker.

“If you look at all the long runs he had last season, most of them happened because he broke a tackle either at the line of scrimmage or in the secondary or linebacker level. And almost 50 percent of the yards he rushed for last year were yards that he generated for himself. So that’s a real high percentage, maybe as high as any kid I’ve coached, so that is maybe as good a quality as he has.”

Longtime Pearl-Cohn coach Tony Brunetti explains Vaughn’s future is whatever he makes it.

“High school career-wise, that young man as a freshman just worked and would grind out opportunities for himself. And every year, he’s just gotten better and better and better. By his senior year, he’d earned all the titles and all the respect … on the field and how he carries himself in the classroom as a person,” Brunetti says.

“He won the Hume Award here in town; that’s a prestigious honor. Again, character, plus athletic awards (player of the year and the title of Mr. Football) and he earned all that. He’s the total package. Not many players have all that, and he got recognized for it.

“This is his last year at Vanderbilt and I’m happy he came back (to Nashville) and is going to get his degree,” Brunetti adds. “At the same time, he’s trying to accomplish things and has a chance to do something special this year. He said he’s going to shoot for the Heisman, and he’s going to give his all. Does he have the skills to do it? I believe so.

Any high-level kid at the college level who has the mindset to do it, they can be anything they want to be.”

And if anybody still doubts, they don’t know — or can’t see — the chip on his shoulder that drives Ke’Shawn Vaughn.

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