Warren Norman’s approach to kickoff returns is anything but modest.
“I always think I can break one,” Vanderbilt’s freshman running back said.
He has not done so every time, but he did it once — a 76-yard return for a touchdown on Oct. 10 at Army.
That made him the first Commodore since Nov. 13, 1998, when Jimmy Williams went 96 yards against Kentucky, to take one back for a score. It also helped him move up among the Southeastern Conference leaders in kickoff returns and created the potential for him to be Vanderbilt’s best ever.
This week he has a chance to improve his statistics even more when the Commodores face South Carolina (6 p.m., Williams-Brice Stadium. The Gamecocks are next-to-last in the SEC with a net average of 38.2 yards. The average return against USC is 25.2 yards, a figure enhanced by a 100-yard return for a touchdown by Georgia’s Brandon Boykin back on Sept. 12.
“I (returned kickoffs) it in high school in 11th grade and my 12th grade year,” he said. “It’s just making a decision and go. You can’t be hesitant. Get up field and stay vertical.”
Norman currently ranks sixth in the SEC (31st in the nation) with a 25.9-yard average on returns. The school’s single season record (based on a minimum of 10 attempts) is 25.7 yards and is shared by Kwane Doster (2002) and D.J. Moore (2007).
J.P. Moore averaged 32.2 yards on five returns back in 1946 (as far back as Vanderbilt’s records date) and Phil King averaged 30 yards on eight returns in 1957.
Neither Moore nor Doster returned one for a touchdown in those seasons as Norman did against Army.
Norman became the Commodores’ primary kick returner, in addition to his regular role as a running back, in the second half of the season’s second game. Jamie Graham got hurt late in the first half of a loss that day at LSU.
He averaged 18.7 yards on three tries, and the following week averaged 30 yards on five returns against Mississippi State.
His 569 total return yards in addition to 450 rushing and 55 receiving give him 1,074 all-purpose yards – second in the SEC to Alabama’s Mark Ingram (1,091) and third in the league in per game average (153.4).
“Anytime you get to get out there on the field and do something for the team, it’s always good,” Norman said. “I’m thrilled. I’ve been playing football for a while now and it’s always been exciting. As long as I can continue to do it, it will always be thrill.”
• Running backs Jared Hawkins and Zac Stacy both practiced on Wednesday. Coach Bobby Johnson, however, remained uncertain about whether one or both would be able to play Saturday.
• Left tackle Thomas Welch participated in a portion of the workout. Johnson was even less optimistic about Welch’s chances to play.
• Center Bradley Vierling sat out with back spasms. The situation was not expected to hinder him into the weekend.