There was a time — not too long ago, in fact — when a player like Warren Norman was considered one-of-a-kind for Vanderbilt football.
A bona fide playmaker as both a running back and a return man, he was so good that he was the Southeastern Conference freshman of the year in 2009 despite the fact that the Commodores went 2-10. He simply was impossible to overlook.
Three years later it is not unusual for an entire game to pass with Norman never setting foot the field. A knee injury sustained during his sophomore season definitely slowed him down and even kept him out of action for the entire 2011 campaign. It’s two others who came to campus the same time he did — Zac Stacy and Wesley Tate — who have helped keep him down on the depth chart since.
Norman’s decline says a lot about how the Commodores have risen to respectability in the hypercompetitive SEC, their recent effort against Georgia notwithstanding.
Lost amid all the positive reports about James Franklin’s recruiting efforts in the past two seasons was the fact that his predecessor Bobby Johnson (we’ll ignore the Robbie Caldwell year for the sake of this discussion) and his staff had started to collect talented players in bunches.
Bunches of three, to be exact. Not at every position, but at some meaningful ones.
Norman, Stacy and Tate came in together and provided instantly meaningful depth at running back. The next year wide receivers Jordan Matthews, Chris Boyd and Jonathan Krause arrived en masse.
Just like that, the Commodores had options — and opportunity — at the skill positions. And they’ve needed them all.
Stacy spent much of his freshman season playing second fiddle to Norman. His career has maintained a steady upward path, and he entered this season as the conference’s top returning rusher. Tate’s versatility has prompted coaches to use him some at fullback and at slot receiver before he settled back in at running back this season.
The three wide receivers, similarly, have seen their roles and production vary throughout their two-plus seasons based on circumstances. Yet all three have made big plays along the way. For much of the last year or so, Matthews and Boyd have been a productive combination that can test any defense’s approach.
How different than what had been the norm.
Before Norman, there was Kwane Doster, an electric running back and return man who was the SEC freshman of the year in 2002. He battled injuries for the next two years before he his shocking death in a Tampa shooting prior to his senior year.
No one at that time stepped up in a comparable manner during his decline and eventual loss.
Earl Bennett put up huge numbers at wide receiver for three years beginning in 2005. He had precious little help at that time, though, and when defenses succeeded in limiting his production, Vanderbilt had little chance of victory.
Norman was singled out as a freshman, but it’s clear now that he was not a singular talent within his own team.
That’s not to say he’s going to just fade into oblivion.
When he got to play during the 58-0 rout of Presbyterian a couple weeks ago, fans stood and applauded his first carry and the touchdown he scored. They have not forgotten how good, how exciting, how unusual he was as a freshman.
The current coaching staff was not here to witness all that he did, though. Their perception of him was formed by what he did in the training room more than anything, and when they looked around the locker room they saw better, healthier options.
So it is that Warren Norman likely is as talented and accomplished as any fourth-string running back anywhere. That’s a new one for Vanderbilt.