Vanderbilt junior running back Ralph Webb doesn’t pull any punches on this subject: He grew up in Gainesville, Fla., wanting to be a Florida Gator.
As a senior at Gainesville High – which is about 2 miles from Ben Hill Griffin Stadium – in 2012, he ran for 2,020 yards and scored 28 touchdowns for a team that reached the state Class 6A final. He thought that would be enough to get a scholarship offer from Will Muschamp’s staff. It wasn’t.
He was beyond disappointed.
"I just thought I was an underrated back coming out of high school, given the numbers I was putting up," Webb said when we talked by phone after Thursday's practice in Nashville. "I wanted to go to Florida, but it didn't go my way. That's OK. I've used that as motivation and as a chip on my shoulder. I've always used that to give me a little edge."
As it turns out, the football gods had a special journey in mind for Ralph Webb.
Among Webb's offers at the time, Minnesota appeared to be the best. But on the weekend before National Signing Day, then-Vanderbilt coach James Franklin talked Webb into making an official visit to Nashville. Webb took the visit but no scholarship was offered.
That Sunday, Webb picked up his cell phone to tell then-Minnesota coach Jerry Kill that he would be a Gopher. But before Webb could place the call, Franklin contacted him via Face Time and offered him a scholarship to Vanderbilt.
"It was a chance to play in the SEC and the education at Vanderbilt was second to none," said Webb, who is on track to graduate next May with a sociology degree. "Besides, the weather is nicer, too. It was negative-3 (degrees) when I was in Minnesota."
Webb (5 feet 10, 202 pounds) redshirted in 2013, after which Franklin left for Penn State and was replaced by Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason.
Not a whole lot went right in Mason's first season at Vanderbilt, which finished 3-9 overall and 0-8 in the SEC in 2014. But Webb set a Vanderbilt freshman rushing record with 907 yards.
Last season, while coaches looked for a consistent quarterback, Webb ran for 1,152 yards, the best total ever for a sophomore at Vanderbilt.
But here is the fun part: On November 7, Vanderbilt played at The Swamp. It was his first game there, and Webb estimates there were 30 family members in attendance and a bunch more watching on television. With the Commodores trailing 6-0 and less than a minute to go before halftime, Webb broke off a 74-yard touchdown run to give Vanderbilt a 7-6 lead.
"It was an incredible feeling," Webb said of the scoring run. "Someday I'm going to show that to my kids. It was the best feeling in the world."
Then he paused.
"It would have felt even better if we had won."
Vanderbilt's lead held until there was 2:22 left in the game, when Florida's Austin Hardin kicked a 43-yard field goal to give the Gators a 9-7 victory and a spot in the SEC championship game.
"That was tough," Webb said. "Very tough."
Vanderbilt finished 4-8 and Webb capped the season with 149 yards in a loss to Tennessee.
Webb enters his junior season needing 1,085 yards to pass Zac Stacy as Vanderbilt's leading career rusher. Webb has been told he'll be used in a lot of different ways this fall in an attempt to maximize his production in a retooled offense.
"I'm hoping to take a more dynamic role in this offense," Webb said.
Vanderbilt should be able to make that happen because they've found some depth at running back, moving linebacker Khari Blasingame into the running back and fullback rotation. Junior Dallas Rivers also will get reps at fullback and running back.
But the really good news for Webb and the offense is that the Commodores appear to finally be stable at quarterback. Johnny McCrary struggled mightily as the starter last season and was, to be kind, a turnover machine. Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, in his first season after leaving Wisconsin, went with McCrary as long as he could. McCrary had started 11 straight games for Vanderbilt but in those games he had 15 interceptions. Finally, the decision was made to pull the redshirt off freshman Kyle Shurmur.
Shurmur, son of longtime NFL coach Pat Shurmur (he's the Minnesota Vikings' tight end coach and was the Cleveland Browns' coach from 2011-12), was a steadying influence, leading the Commodores to wins over Missouri and Kentucky down the stretch. He threw for 209 yards and three touchdowns in the season finale against Tennessee (a 53-28 loss).
"Kyle has done a great job of running this offense," Webb said. "We've got depth and we're capable of making special plays."
The defense, which made great strides in 2015 (sixth in the SEC in total defense and scoring defense) after Mason took over as coordinator, again is going to be good. That and the seemingly likely offensive improvement is why I think the Commodores have a shot at reaching a bowl in 2016.
Vanderbilt opens the season on ESPN next Thursday with South Carolina, now coached by Will Muschamp. Webb is confident Vanderbilt will play well – so confident, in fact, that he told reporters at SEC Media Days that he guaranteed a win over the Gamecocks.
"We love the fact that it will be on national TV," Webb said. "It can't get here fast enough. We are ready to go out and show what we can do."
(You can follow Tony Barnhart on Twitter @MrCFB)
© 2016, Tony Barnhart. All rights reserved.
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