Editor's note: This article was first published on August 28, 2019.
HOOVER, Ala. — Let's start with the shoes, because it's hard to start anywhere else. These aren't just black velvet loafers. These are black velvet loafers with four rows of sparkling gold rhinestones blanketed across each one of Ke'Shawn Vaughn's feet.
He doesn't wear socks. That would dilute whatever look Vaughn is hoping to capture at SEC media days. Whether he's merely making a fashion statement or a declaration far grander is unclear, at least for the first few minutes. It doesn't take long, however, for the swag on his feet to be matched by the overflowing confidence of his words.
Inside Suite 315 of the Wynfrey Hotel, the senior Vanderbilt running back is unwinding after meeting with the media. His black suit jacket—filled with Vanderbilt logos in the lining—rests on a nearby chair. Vaughn spreads across a couch in the center of the room.
He wears a black vest, a black-and-gold tie and a white dress shirt. Each time he leans forward, it looks as though his powerful shoulders and chest might escape his dresswear.
Typically, when college football's most powerful conference meets the media in mid-July, Vanderbilt is a secondary attraction—an afterthought to the madness surrounding Alabama, Georgia, LSU. But Vaughn is an exception to these yearly assumptions—a running back whose size and talent transcend program affiliation.
"Ke'Shawn Vaughn is the best running back in the SEC, point blank, period," Vanderbilt wide receiver Kalija Lipscomb says. "He may not say it, but I will tell. I see how he works every day. He can do whatever he wants on the football field."
In 2018, Vaughn averaged 7.9 yards per carry—more than a yard higher than the second-best average in the SEC. He accumulated 1,244 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns on only 157 carries, a workload that would have been greater had he not battled injuries.
At 5'10" and 218 pounds, Vaughn has the physical traits to be an every-down back in the NFL. But given an opportunity to start his professional career after his junior season, Vaughn instead returned to Vanderbilt—in the town where he grew up—with hopes of elevating the reputation of the program he once spurned.
Along the way, he wants to change how people view him. He wants to educate those who don't think a running back from Vanderbilt can be this good. He wants to open the eyes of those who list running backs such as Georgia's D'Andre Swift, Clemson's Travis Etienne or Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor above him on their draft boards.
And in truth, he's thinking even bigger than all that.
"I have looked up Reggie Bush's Heisman numbers," Vaughn says. "I have looked up LaDainian Tomlinson's numbers. I'm chasing their numbers, and I think I can get them."
He wants to put together a season as spectacular as the shoes on his feet.
Perhaps the only person with more shoe swag than Vaughn is his head coach. As Derek Mason greets the media, his crisp white Nikes, with a large black swoosh, seem to almost glow.
Since he took over for James Franklin in 2014, Mason has accumulated two six-win seasons and an overall record of 24-38. Winning here is difficult, and there is no getting around it.
Surrounded by resource-rich football powers that cycle through the nation's best athletes yearly, Mason has to navigate each season differently than his peers. Vanderbilt's academic standing makes recruiting a daunting assignment.
Vaughn, born and raised in Nashville, was originally one that got away for Mason. A homegrown star from nearby Pearl-Cohn High School, Vaughn was named the Tennessee Gatorade Player of the Year in 2014 after he ran for 2,646 yards and 45 touchdowns as a senior.
Ohio State, Notre Dame and Wisconsin all wanted him. As did Vanderbilt, although a 3-9 season in Mason's first year made it a difficult sell. Vaughn committed to Illinois, largely because it was close enough to Nashville and he felt he could see the field early.
His hopes were realized during his freshman season, when he ran for 723 yards—becoming an instant weapon and one of the bright young stars in the Big Ten. But as a sophomore, after Lovie Smith was brought in as head coach, Vaughn's numbers and carries dipped significantly.
"That was a great coaching staff," Vaughn says. "But it didn't work out in my favor, so I got out."
Mason had been keeping an eye on Vaughn and rooting for him from afar. By the time Vaughn made it known he planned to transfer from Illinois, Vanderbilt was showing promise—making it to a bowl and winning six games in 2016. The Commodores also proved to be a good place for a running back that season, with junior Ralph Webb rushing for 1,283 yards and 13 touchdowns.
"We always stayed in contact in terms of me cheering him on when he was at the University of Illinois," Mason says. "When the change occurred and he decided to come back home, he and I sort of rekindled our relationship. We've become close, extremely close, and I'm thankful for that."
The decision to come home came at a price—at least, it would have for most. Because he was transferring, Vaughn was forced to sit out the 2017 season. While players have applied for waivers and gone to great lengths to avoid missing games in recent years, Vaughn had a different approach.
"I knew that I was going to have to sit, and I accepted that," he says. "I'd been playing football since I was five. I was exhausted. I needed that year off, honestly."
His body healed as he focused on learning a new playbook and refining parts of his game. Jukes. Cuts. Catching the football. He returned home and enjoyed a slow, patient transition that is counter to the current mindset for most.
As the Commodores' scout-team running back, he also provided a glimpse at practice of what Vanderbilt would see the following year. "I'll tell you," Mason says with a smile. "In my time, he may have been the best scout-team running back I've ever coached."
Pick a run. Or at least try to pick one.
Start with his 46-yard touchdown burst in his second game at Vanderbilt. He broke one tackle and then outran the entire Nevada defense.
Or maybe it's his 78-yard dash against Tennessee State later that month. Or his 43-yard runs against Georgia and Florida, two of the nation's best defenses. Or his two runs of 60-plus yards against Arkansas and Missouri.
Or maybe one of his 13 carries against Baylor that accounted for 243 yards in Vanderbilt's bowl game—a day where the whole catalog of size and speed was on display.
Asked if he has a favorite, Vaughn leans back and smiles. He gives it a few seconds of thought before giving up. "I can't think of just one," he says. "There are so many."
As he walks through his running style, he can't help himself. The confidence just flows from him no matter where the conversation goes.
"I mean, I'm unpredictable," he says. "It's hard to scout me, because I'm able to run you over, run past you and also juke you. Those are three things that every running back can't do."
While some have to manufacture this kind of self-belief, Vaughn's comes naturally. It's not alarming or off-putting, either. This is a player who's sure of himself and what he's capable of—unafraid of the expectations that will follow.
"I'm able to gain speed the more I run," he continues. "I'm able to get through holes quick. That's why my linemen know they don't have to block three or four seconds for me. You can block a second, maybe a second-and-a-half, and it's a touchdown."
Vaughn carried the ball more than 20 times only twice last season. Perhaps more significantly, he carried the ball 10 or fewer times in six games—battling injuries that hindered his opportunities but not his production.
"I think it goes without saying that when you average eight yards a carry, but he is getting the most out of every run that he can," Vanderbilt tight end Jared Pinkney says. "There are no false movements or bad reads. If there's a hole, he is going to find it."
In his final five games of the year, Vaughn ran for 749 yards and eight touchdowns on only 85 carries. His 1,244 yards rushing and 14 total touchdowns would make for a remarkable season without any further context.
"When he touches the ball, he's hard to tackle," Mason says. "I mean, the young man's dynamic. If you ask me how fast he runs, I don't know. 4.36? 4.39? At 220 pounds, he's fast. Faster than any running back that I've seen since I've been here."
At the end of the season, Vaughn had a choice: declare for the NFL and skip his senior year, or return to Vanderbilt for one more season.
He explored both. He began by talking to his head coach and family. Vaughn then received feedback from the College Advisory Committee—a collection of NFL executives and other talent evaluators who will advise a player on his possible draft standing.
The committee typically provides three layers of feedback: a potential first-round selection, second-round selection and what essentially amounts to "return to school" guidance. Vaughn was told to return to school, which he did.
"I don't think I'm third-round talent," he says. "I should be first-round talent. I believe in myself, so I'm taking a risk on myself."
It won't take long for the NFL to see what Vaughn is capable of against some of the country's most gifted football players.
On Saturday, Vanderbilt starts its season at home against Georgia, the No. 3 team in the preseason AP poll. The Commodores will then travel to Purdue, a formidable out-of-conference opponent. They will then play No. 6 LSU after a bye.
One victory would be considered a productive first month for a team that is likely to be an underdog in all three games. But Vaughn is not of this mindset, no matter the schedule.
"That's one of the reasons I stayed," he says. "People seem to downplay Vanderbilt. We're in the SEC, but it's like we're in a different SEC or something.
"We will end up getting the recognition we deserve by the time the season's over."
If that transformation is to take place, Vaughn will be asked to do much of the heavy lifting. Although Lipscomb and Pinkney give the team a potent three-headed monster on offense, Vaughn is the centerpiece.
Along the way, watchful eyes will take inventory of his performance. While the committee suggested he return for his senior year, the NFL has taken notice of the top senior running back in the 2020 draft class.
"A lot of people think he's a move-the-pile guy, but he's so much more than that," one NFL scout tells Bleacher Report. "He's got wiggle and shake, and he's got game-breaking speed. There's value in this league for running backs that can do both—move the pile and make you miss. He's that guy and more."
This year, he has a chance to prove it and lift the perception of his program along the way. Regardless of the outcome, it won't be for a lack of belief.
The rhinestone shoes will be tucked away for another occasion. Perhaps they will surface come December at the Heisman ceremony or next spring when the NFL draft rolls around.
Vaughn will have to wear something less grandiose for now. But the flash and swagger will remain.
Adam Kramer covers college football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KegsnEggs.