TAMPA — Ke’Shawn Vaughn’s 55-yard touchdown run in Sunday’s 32-6 win at Carolina was the Bucs’ longest of the season, but it’s the kind of play that wasn’t over when he reached the end zone. The turning point of the game also likely was the turning point of his career.
A third-round pick from Vanderbilt in 2020, Vaughn’s NFL journey has been spent on the sideline watching other players such as Leonard Fournette or Ronald Jones run the football.
He occasionally would get a play here or there on special teams. But for the past two seasons, Vaughn has witnessed the Bucs’ front office tying itself up in knots trying to find discarded veteran running backs off the scrap heap to back up Jones and Fournette.
Last year, it was LeSean McCoy, who had some flashes as a third-down back. Last week, it was Le’Veon Bell, who had mentally retired from football to concentrate on boxing after being cut by the Ravens.
All the while, Vaughn was hiding in plain sight. Prior to Sunday, he had only touched the football in three games, rushing 11 times for 50 yards. He was inactive in five games and limited to special teams snaps in six others.
“It was big for me,” Vaughn said of Sunday’s performance. “I feel like this was the opportunity I’ve kind of been waiting on. I feel like I did great (Sunday). It’s just one step. There’s so much more left to add to my game, to correct. So it’s just a starting point.”
Perhaps just as importantly, it atoned for a disastrous performance in the Bucs’ 9-0 loss to New Orleans a week earlier. After Fournette was lost to a hamstring injury and Jones ripped off a couple long runs, Vaughn entered the game as the third-down back and quite literally fell on his face.
He dropped one pass from Tom Brady and had both feet slip out from under him while trying unsuccessfully to field another one.
But with Fournette placed on injured reserve with a hamstring injury, Vaughn was able to get full practice reps.
“It meant a lot to me mentally and physically,” Vaughn said. “More mental. Just kind of pacing myself, slowing the game down. Just kind of sitting back and learning. Then (last week’s) preparation was also good for me.”
In fact, Vaughn’s touchdown romp Sunday was a play he had run many times in practice. It was a simple zone run to the left with tight ends Rob Gronkowski and O.J. Howard setting the edge against the Carolina defense. Vaughn made Panthers cornerback C.J. Henderson miss, stiff-armed safety Juston Burris to the ground, then used a hustle block by receiver Cyril Grayson on safety Myles Hartsfield to find the end zone.
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“I just kind of read it out,” Vaughn said. “I knew I had the corner one-on-one. I got skinny with the corner and then it’s me and the safety. Stiff-armed him. And then I got Cyril down the field blocking for me which made it even easier to get the touchdown.
“For the guys that stepped up, I’d say we prepared all week and we kind of understood the assignment and knew what we had to do. We had to get this division win. Just stepping in for the (injured) guys like Mike (Evans), Chris (Godwin) and (Fournette), it’s just big. It’s next man up. We’ve got to keep this going. We’ve got goals we’re trying to make.”
Vaughn finished with a team-high 70 rushing yards on seven carries with one touchdown. Jones did the heavy lifting, adding 20 carries for 65 yards and a touchdown, his fourth of the season.
Vaughn has learned to be patient. He spent two years at Illinois before transferring to Vanderbilt, where he had a back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons for an SEC team that mostly was devoid of a passing game.
Since joining the Bucs, Vaughn has been surrounded by big-name backs with enormous resumes.
“I’ve been around star running backs since I got here,” he said. “I’ve been seeking advice since I got here. ... I’ve always had old heads kind of in my ear, kind of helping me out or calming me down if I get frustrated or stressed out.”
The Bucs are hopeful Fournette will return for the playoffs. Like Fournette, Jones is a free agent and likely to test the market. That leaves Vaughn as the Bucs’ only viable running back with a contract for 2022.
“I think he’s a lead back,” coach Bruce Arians said. “He has great running skills. Excellent jump cut ability. ... He’s worked on his hands hard. I think he’s a lead dog.”
With Godwin lost for the season to a torn ACL and Evans on the reserve/COVID-19 list and nursing a hamstring injury, the Bucs will lean harder on their run game down the stretch and into the postseason.
After Sunday’s performance, Vaughn’s future certainly looks a lot brighter.
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