All it took was a jump cut along the goal line. That’s what sprung Kansas State running back Deuce Vaughn for his first career touchdown against Arkansas State on Sept. 12, 2020. The move happened in an instant, yet it takes Vaughn a full minute to provide a breakdown of what occurred.
The Wildcats called a combo play. Vaughn lined up on the left side of Wildcat quarterback Skylar Thompson, who had the read. Vaughn would go right or left depending on the front. Vaughn received the handoff from Thompson but the Red Wolves instantly filled each gap, with all-conference linebacker Justin Rice squeezing through the line of scrimmage.
That’s what Vaughn’s feet did for a beat before he exploded right. It’s also all Vaughn can remember his brain doing when he saw Rice crash into the hole.
“It happened so quickly you just let your mind let go and your feet do the job,” Vaughn told 247Sports.“It’s kind of an autopilot reaction.”
Not all of Vaughn’s ankle-breaking moments occur in such a Zen-like state. There is leverage, positioning and the next move to consider. Yet when it comes to Vaughn’s many leave-the-defender-leaning jukes, Vaughn would contend it’s mostly about letting go. And few are better qualified to discuss the art of the missed tackle than Vaughn.
A 247Sports True Freshman All-American a season ago, Vaughn averaged 14.8 yards after the catch (sixth nationally among all RBs, per PFF College) and forced 25 missed tackles on just 123 carries. Vaughn finished the year with 642 yards rushing and seven touchdowns to go along with 434 yards receiving on 17.4 yards per reception. He’s the only true freshman in a decade to eclipse 600-plus rushing yards and 400-plus receiving yards in the same season.
A quick aside about the name Deuce.
Vaughn is named Chris Vaughn II after his dad, a Dallas Cowboys scout and a former college football assistant for a number of Power Five programs. When Deuce was little, those in his extended family said they’d just call him “junior.” His mom, Marquette, called a hard audible and picked the nickname Deuce, partly because of New Orleans Saints running back Deuce McAllister.
Chris Vaughn entered the 2020 season hoping his son would play. Wanting to avoid the classic coaching dad trap – hyping up your child because it’s your child – Vaughn didn’t really know what to think of his Deuce’s early breakout. He mostly tried to rationalize it.
Arkansas State? Not the Big 12.
Going off for 164 yards in a win over Oklahoma? “In my mind, I’m still thinking maybe it’s a fluke.”
Two touchdowns and 194 yards against Texas Tech? “Alright, he can make some plays.”
Deuce’s momentum never slowed. Perhaps that’s because he never seems to stop moving. Chris Vaughn’s last college job was at Texas, where he coached DBs. Those are the same players often tasked with stopping Deuce in the open field.
When it comes to tackling Deuce, Chris Vaughn said defenders are forced to choose between unenviable options:
1. Sit down and wait for him to make the next move, which requires players explosive enough to match Vaughn and make the tackle.
2. Take your shot and hope you choose the right direction to attack, like a keeper on penalty kicks.
“You don’t want to be stuck in the gray with a guy who can move like that in space,” Chris Vaughn said. Then you throw in the fact he’s a smaller target. That’s like catching a BB in your hand.”
When Chris Vaughn references a “smaller target” he means small.
Deuce played last season at 5-foot-5, 168 pounds. Those measurements wouldn’t make him the tiniest player in FBS history. But he’s easily among the shortest
When Deuce first arrived at Cedar Ridge High School in Round Rock, Texas, he was weighed like the rest of the incoming freshmen. Sam Robinson, now the head coach and then the defensive coordinator, remembers Vaughn checking in around 5-foot-4, 125 pounds.
“He was nothing,” Robinson said. In a physical sense, of course.
Vaughn may have looked diminutive, but he did everything else well enough the staff contemplated an immediate varsity placement. He eventually got his shot in the playoffs that season.
Deep into a blowout victory, Vaughn earned his first carry: 70 yards to the house.
The next drive Vaughn got his second: 65 yards and tackled just shy of the goal line.
Deuce realized entering high school he’d battle against a size perception the rest of his life. At that point he made the decision that if he wasn’t going to be a 220-pound back who gets the ball on third-and-2, he’d be versatile enough to contribute in any situation. This led to many conversations with his dad about what Deuce could add to nullify any diminutive disadvantages.
“He understands because I am undersized, he needs to maximize everything he has,” Chris Vaughn said. “Some guys are naturally big, strong and fast and take that for granted. Deuce has never done that. He’s always had that, I don’t want to call it fear, but he’s always had, ‘If I’m not at my best because I am undersized there’s a chance I might not get to perform on the field.’ I think that drives him to do the little things.”
Deuce holds Cedar Ridge’s running back squat record at 450 pounds. “He’s strong as crap,” Robinson said. The son of a coach, Deuce always studied like one. He spent hours learning to read blocks and to manipulate linebackers. He’s the same way as a route runner. Then there are the things you can’t teach. Vaughn might be small, but he’s been clocked at 4-flat in the 20-yard shuttle. That’s elite short-area quickness as only one running back since 2015 (Michael Carter) has posted a 4-second shuttle or faster during the NFL Draft lead up process. Both Deuce and Chris Vaughn attribute his footwork to playing soccer and flag football growing up – he didn’t play tackle until seventh grade.
Then there’s Deuce’s natural football aptitude.
Robinson recalls a play from Deuce’s high school career when Cedar Ridge’s QB tossed an interception. The defender had three blockers in front of him and plenty of space. Then Deuce weaved through them one by one all the while creating an angle where the returner was pinned to the sideline. That’s when Deuce unloaded into the defender’s thigh, connecting so soundly the ball carrier flipped into the air.
“We spend 15 minutes every day on the angles of tackling here, and Deuce hasn’t ever done one of those drills,” Robinson said. “Our guys still can’t do it, and he did it. That stuff still blows my mind.”
Despite all-state production in Texas’ highest clarification and a father with plenty of coaching contacts, interest in Deuce as a recruit was limited (he ranked No. 1,236 nationally in the 247Sports Composite).
Not that Chris Vaughn ever held it against his coaching friends. He understood.
“Deuce is really, really good,” Chris said. “He’s undersized. I’ve been with it on the other side when you try to bring an undersized guy to the table. It’s not easy.”
Robinson took things a little less stoically. One time, a Big 12 coach, who Robinson had pressed about Vaughn before, came out to practice and quipped, ‘Man, it seems like Deuce keeps getting smaller.’ Another time, a Texas Tech assistant came out to look at Simi Bakare – a three-star prospect in the 2018 class – and Robinson pointed out Deuce and asked the coach if he wanted his contact information. The coach looked at Deuce for half a second before saying, “Nah.”
“That pissed me off,” Robinson said.
Kansas State had a different approach. Robinson remembers talking with Wildcat assistant head coach Van Malone once about a linebacker, Trevor Price, who stood just 5-foot-9. Robinson told Malone most coaches stayed away from Price, who would sign with Nevada, because of his height. That’s when Malone said: “I hate that. I hear these coaches say ‘if that corner was half an inch taller.’ So, 5-foot-11 is not good enough?”
The Wildcats thought 5-foot-5 was good enough. People in the Little Apple had seen a similarly sized running back excel before as 5-foot-6 Darren Sproles rolled through the Big 12 from 2001-04; Said Deuce of the many comparisons he gets to Sproles: “To even be mentioned with him is ridiculous.”
Deuce had his chance. That’s all he needed.
“My dad and I always talked about everybody has a journey and this is mine, and size will play a factor into this journey,” Deuce said. “He was saying, ‘This is what you just have to do. Don’t worry about what people tell you. Somebody is going to give you a chance. When they do go show them what you can do.’
“That’s something that’s stayed in my head the entire time.”
Ask Vaughn about his favorite juke, and he jumps to an Oct. 24 win over Kansas. Vaughn ran for 71 yards and a touchdown and had 81 yards receiving and a touchdown that afternoon. Those scores just weren’t the highlights of the day.
That came on first-and-10 in the third quarter. K-State called a sweep left and Vaughn, lined up the quarterback’s right side, took the ball and sprinted left. The blocks left him one-on-one with linebacker Gavin Potter. Vaughn saw Potter sprinting right toward the sideline, hips pointed directly at the sideline as he tried to close the distance. That’s when Vaughn planted his foot and made a hard cut right. Potter tried to recover, spinning the opposite direction, but grasped at air before falling face first on the ground. Then came the audible “OH” from the Wildcats crowd.
“It all set up perfectly one on one,” Vaughn said. “And at that point you bet on yourself 10 times out of 10 in that situation. ‘OK, this is what you do.’”
Vaughn prepares for those moments. It’s all about leverage and understanding how the sequence might occur pre-snap. Before the play happened, Vaughn knew the unblocked linebacker would be coming from his left side, and he’d likely be able to cut back across the defender’s face because he’d be off balance.
No matter the situation, Vaughn wants the defensive player to have his feet crossed, committing early enough to give him time to counter. Defenders are taught to stay square so they can attack a runner either direction. Every move Vaughn makes is predicated on forcing a defender to open or close his hips just enough for Vaughn to squeeze by.
Vaughn explains this like a coach (or perhaps the son of a coach). He spends two minutes discussing his love of route running, which is more art than skill to Vaughn. Even today, as an elite running back in college football, 50% of his daily work is at receiver.
He wants to add Devonte Adams-like tempo to his routes. He wants Julio Jones’ change-of-direction. It’s part of a hunger for the game that’s never dissipated even after people constantly questioned his size.
Deuce knows he doesn’t look the part, which means he’ll always have to prove he can play. That idea often comes up in talks with his dad, who points out that every good football player has a story — something that drives them. Chris Vaughn said his son’s size is one of those things.
Deuce has been known to call his height his “superpower.”
This might sound crazy in a sport in which physical attributes can cost players a scholarship, a starting spot or millions in the draft. But it’s also part of what makes Deuce one of the most difficult players to tackle in the country.
“There’s not a lot of surface to tackle,” Chris Vaughn said. “You have a small guy in space who’s quick, it makes it really hard. He’s got a lower center of gravity than those trying to tackle him.”