Vanderbilt running back Warren Norman showed a return to form—returning kicks—in Saturday’s loss to Connecticut.
As a sophomore, Norman leads all active SEC players with 1352 career kickoff return yards. But through three games this season, Norman didn’t have a single return longer than 29 yards.
That all changed against Connecticut.
In the second quarter last Saturday, Norman sprung loose for a 72-yard return that set up the Commodores atUConn’s 24-yard line. They took advantage when quarterback Larry Smith hit tight end Brandon Barden on an 8-yard touchdown pass —the fifth play of the shortened drive.
After a UConn field goal in the third quarter, Norman mishandled the ensuing kickoff. Yet he managed to corral the ball with enough time and space to rip off another big return -- 46 yards -- and got to midfield.
Norman finished the game with 162 total return yards, and an average of better than 40 yards per return.
“It was OK, I didn’t score though,” he said. “They were pretty big returns. The front line did a great job opening holes and making big blocks all across the board. Unfortunately, I just couldn’t score.“
Much of Norman’s drop in return average at the start of the season is related injury. Just 10 days before VU opened against Northwestern, Norman had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee.
“When you come off knee surgery you’re not going to be at 100 percent,” Norman said. “It’s getting better week-by-week and hopefully it won’t hold me back from getting in the end zone this week.”
Coach Robbie Caldwell has noticed a change in acceleration and confidence as Norman has healed up.
“I think he’s getting close to full-speed now,” Caldwell said. “Confidence-wise, he even dropped one ball and still ran it 40-50 yards. I think he’s gotten his confidence back in that leg.
Currently, Norman has the third best kickoff return average in the SEC at 30.2 yards. He trails Florida's Jeff Demps (32.5 yards) and Alabama’s Trent Richardson (30.9 yards), two of the conference’s most celebrated players.
The average is solid, but Norman is jonesing to reach the end zone on a return. In 2009 he returned three kicks for touchdowns -- against South Carolina (99 yards), Georgia Tech (80 yards), and Army (76 yards).
The 72-yard return at Connecticut was a near-miss for his fourth.
“Any time you do something last year you always want to build from it,” Norman said. “I definitely feel like I had the opportunity last weekend, but I think we have another great opportunity this weekend.”
• Linebacker Chris Marve, who tore a meniscus at UConn Saturday, did not practice Tuesday. On Monday, Caldwell said he expected Marve to be unavailable against Eastern Michigan. Marve initially wanted to test the knee in practice Tuesday. Instead, he will have arthroscopic knee surgery Wednesday morning and hope to return by October 16 to play against Georgia.
“He’s going to have his knee scoped in the morning, they’re going to clean it up,” Caldwell said. “It just didn’t respond the way we thought [it would] so he’s going to get that fixed.”
• Outside linebacker Nate Campbell will move inside to replace Marve as the starting middle linebacker. Caldwell listed Dexter Daniels, Archibald Barnes, DeAndre Jones, and Chase Garnham as potential replacements for Campbell’s reps at outside linebacker.
“That’s what I told all of them: this is your opportunity,” Caldwell said. “Now one of them has to step up and show what they can do.”
• Defensive tackle Adam Smotherman participated in 11-on-11 drills, in full pads, for the first time since tearing his ACL this spring. Caldwell expects Smotherman to see limited action against Eastern Michigan.